A democratic society requires an informed base of voters making political judgments on the basis of commonly accepted information. When reliable authorities no longer hold sway, unscrupulous authoritarians can step in to fill the void…
“We have a risk of getting to a place where we don’t have shared public facts. A republic will not work if we don’t have shared facts.”
– Sen. Ben Sasse, from an interview with CNN of July 2, 2017
Facts were fuzzy in the ancient world. From Homer to Herodotus, from Thales to Plotinus, from the Old Testament to the New, myth, science and history met and mingled, merging into amalgams that were almost invariably greater than the sum of their parts and yet less than what might pass our modern-day tests of peer review, placebo control, double-blindedness and so on. In his 1986 essay, “Visualization and Cognition: Drawing Things Together,” the prominent French thinker and sociologist Bruno Latour accounts for the transition from these “soft” facts to the “hard” facts of more recent centuries. Citing the work of Elizabeth Eisenstein, he argues that the move from fuzzy facts to cold, hard facts was not a matter of mindsets but of technologies:
Again and again [Eisenstein] shows that before the advent of print every possible intellectual feat had been achieved — organized skepticism, scientific method, refutation, data collection, theory making — everything had been tried, and in all disciplines: geography, cosmology, medicine, dynamics, politics, economics and so on. But each achievement stayed local and temporary just because there was no way to move their results elsewhere and to bring in those of others without new corruptions or errors being introduced. For instance, each carefully amended version of an old author was, after a few copies, adulterated. No irreversible gains could be made, and so no large-scale long-term capitalization was possible.
What happened to create the change? In a word (or three), the printing press. “The printing press does not add anything to the mind, to the scientific method, to the brain. It simply conserves and spreads everything no matter how wrong, strange or wild. It makes everything mobile but this mobility is not offset by adulteration.”
Before the printing press, in other words, we were playing a game of Chinese whispers, a game of telephone, in which there is an overwhelming probability that any message gets garbled along the way. In such a culture, a fact — i.e., widely accepted public knowledge — is a near-impossibility. At this stage of civilization, where Plato gets filtered through Aristotle and disseminated into the Classical Arabic world via the Neo-Platonists and Avicenna, while the Hebrew Bible’s entrée into the non-Hebrew-speaking milieu of the diaspora and beyond takes the form of the Septuagint (as well as other now-lost partial translations), fidelity to an original is a Herculean feat, and the line between canonical texts and Apocrypha is necessarily always in flux. Knowledge and truth are repeatedly gained and then lost again. Greek and Arabic astronomy give way to medieval theology, in which the sun comes to revolve around the earth. Against this background, the relative “immutability” of knowledge is, for the first time, “ensured by the process of printing many identical copies; mobility by the number of copies, the paper and the movable type…. Errors are accurately reproduced and spread with no changes. But corrections are also reproduced fast, cheaply and with no further changes…. A new interest in ‘Truth’ does not come from a new vision, but from the same old vision applying itself to new visible objects that mobilize space and time, differently.”
With the advent of the printing press, a new culture is born in which 3D and 4D objects of all sorts — landscapes, laboratory experiments, animals, plants, planets, and historical events — are ever-more routinely and systematically turned into 2D inscriptions — books, essays, studies, equations, maps, graphs, charts, and drawings — to such an extent that the inscriptions come to stand in for and effectively replace their referents as sources of authority about the nature of our world. At times — like the boot on the map taking the place of Italy — these mass-produced inscriptions usurp the object’s perch in our imaginations as well. With time, a “cascade of ever simplified inscriptions… allow[s] harder facts to be produced at greater cost. For example, the description of human fossils which used to be through drawings, is now made by superimposing a number of mechanical diagrams on the drawings. The photographs of the skies, although they produce neat little spots, are still much too rich and confusing for a human eye to look at; so a computer and a laser eye have been invented to read the photographs, so that the astronomer never looks at the sky (too costly), nor even at the photographs (too confusing).”
One can think of it this way: at a certain point in time, the dissemination of information — requiring carvings in stone, papyruses, codices, or other hand-drawn manuscripts — was so prohibitively laborious and expensive that no public market in such information could possibly have existed. The printing press permitted the gradual emergence of such a market and, with it, natural selective pressure incentivizing the production of factual accuracy. The more that market expanded, with a further drop in the cost of the process making printed matter accessible to all and driving mass literacy and numeracy, the higher the premium placed on accuracy became, as there were more of us to catch errors, while the rate at which “corrections” — usually taking the form of competing sources of information — could be made increased with technological changes and the accelerating pace of communication. If The New York Times misinformed us, The Wall Street Journal would be more than happy to step in and set the record straight.
Past a particular threshold, however, another tipping point came. The dissemination of facts via inscriptions and audiovisual media became so easy and inexpensive that anyone with an internet connection now effectively had a printing press and a publishing house at their command. But if the dissemination of information carries little or no cost, then the price of inaccuracy is also minimal. Reputational damage is a meaningful deterrent to inaccuracy when a purveyor of information is one of a few possible authoritative sources that have invested much time and financial and other resources building up good will and caché in the marketplace. But reputational damage is not a significant concern when the cost of entry is low, when the source is just one of many millions of possible sources, with potential “buyers” in the market also not having invested much of anything in the process, such that they have little incentive even to familiarize themselves with particular information sources, much less hold them to account. Moreover, as soon as the market for information is flooded by shoddy goods, the general ideal of accuracy takes a hit. If anyone who can generate a viral tweet can create an authoritative inscription, all inscriptions are robbed of authority. Now, even once-authoritative sources can aim at a lower standard of accuracy and objectivity and also suffer from the generalized distrust that comes to afflict the market as a whole. The media and all erstwhile sources of factual authority begin to lose their credibility. And thus, the phenomenon of “fake news” is born.
The German sociologist Hartmut Rosa’s notion of Social Acceleration (2013) offers another lens through which to consider these same developments. When the pace of change is glacial, we live in eternal time, cyclical time, when everything is sure to return at some point sooner or later down the road. Facts follow this same circuitous trajectory. Information is acquired and, in time, forgotten. Golden Ages and Dark Ages come and go, and the earth might revolve around the sun for a time, only to take its own turn being stationary. When the pace of technological and social change accelerates to the point where a cumulative public dialogue can take shape, and errors can be corrected in a matter of decades or days rather than centuries, then the very notions of progressive time and increasing factual accuracy can take shape. But when things accelerate to the point where we are living in a blur of frenzied tweets and status updates in a 24/7 news cycle of millions of sources of information with which no one can possibly keep pace, the corrective mechanism can no longer keep up with the rate at which information is generated. Facts and their opposites can simultaneously co-exist and draw support from different streams of authority that hardly ever meet in the public square.
Howsoever it is conceived, the mass proliferation of sources of information and the concomitant decline in their reliability also brings about a revolution in the relationship between the core and the peripheral nodes in our cultural network. In Explaining Creativity: the Science of Human Innovation (2006), the psychologist R. Keith Sawyer describes how ideas are disseminated from authors to a narrow coterie of intermediaries (publishers, reviewers, etc.), to connoisseurs, to amateur aficionados, and finally to the general public. This process necessarily filters out “fake news” and “alternative facts.” But a very different reality takes the place of that one when the filtering mechanism leaves the scene and non-experts — the general public — become both the immediate creators and consumers of information.
In Networks, Crowds, and Markets: Reasoning About a Highly Connected World (2010), David Easley and Jon Kleinberg discuss the concept of a positive or negative polarity between nodes in a network. In simple terms, do the nodes have a positive or negative relationship to one another? At some point, the relationship between the core of our informational networks — powerful institutions, opinion-makers, prestigious authors and other information sources — and the periphery was a positive one. The nodes on the periphery — information consumers — looked up to and respected the producers and power brokers at the core. This is the relationship that prevailed for centuries, spanning, among other periods, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. The economic historian Joel Mokyr, for instance, describes the “culture of growth” during the Industrial Revolution: although most of the actual technological advances that spurred the Industrial Revolution were achieved not by elites but by those on the cultural periphery — such as in the relative backwoods of Central and Northern England — Mr. Mokyr argues that the positive relationship between the elite core and non-elite periphery was critical to enabling those changes and innovations. The accumulation and diffusion of useful knowledge made the Industrial Revolution possible, and the vector of that diffusion was from the core to the periphery: “[t]he importance of upper class individuals in sponsoring and at times participating in intellectual innovations of certain kinds in the early modern period raised the social prestige of these activities and credibility of their findings,” Mr. Mokyr explains in A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy (2016).
Today the kind of positive, symbiotic relationship between core and periphery that enabled these periods of impressive cultural and technological growth is inconceivable. Fueled by the dramatic democratization in the technology that permits the creation and dissemination of information that I have described above, the periphery no longer needs — or thinks it no longer needs — the core. As a result, the relationship between periphery and core has progressively deteriorated and, in recent years, has become downright hostile. In place of working together to produce a culture in which, as Mr. Mokyr describes, high ideals and financial backing emanate from the core to support a constant infusion of new blood and vibrant new ideas emanating from the periphery, the periphery today is hard at work creating a disrespectful, destructive anti-culture, or really, an assemblage of mutually destructive and self-destructive anti-cultures, ranging from, on the political right, the disdain for non-theological science, coastal, media and academic “elites” and “the Establishment,” to, on the political left, a variety of dueling identity groups fighting tooth and claw against each other and everyone else in pursuit of preeminence while fulminating at their own version of “elites” or “the Establishment,” which they conceive of as dead and near-dead white males and their revered institutions, high culture included.
“Multiculturalism,” one common term describing our present-day paradigm and a direct consequence of this revolution in communication technologies, essentially proclaims the death of a unitary cultural mainstream. In his sometimes overstated but always fascinating Against Essentialism: A Theory of Culture and Society (2001), the sociologist Stephan Fuchs defines a “fact” as “whatever moves closer to the core of a network, where its certainties and institutions are housed and protected.” Regardless of whether or not one believes, unlike Mr. Fuchs, that some notion of correspondence with “reality” is indispensable for a fact to be a fact, surely Mr. Fuchs is correct that a fact (at least to be in any way serviceable or recognizable as one) must be widely shared public knowledge within the right institutional or general community for that sort of fact, so that obscure or specialized facts about subjects such as biology or history need only command the acceptance of biologists or historians while more basic facts about such disciplines — evolution or President Obama’s birthplace — are matters upon which we might expect there to be general consensus. But with the rise of multiculturalism and similar varieties of political and social fragmentation, there is no longer any single core of our cultural network. Multiple cultures have multiple cores and, thus, multiple truths; each has its own set of “alternative” facts. Crazed right-wingers believe Obama was a Kenyan-born Muslim, while crazed left-wingers (and the many ordinary citizens duped by an increasingly unrepentantly politicized liberal media machine) believe, all evidence to the contrary, in the existence of an epidemic of disproportionate police shootings of unarmed blacks. These dogmas are built upon and come to be supported and reinforced by a broad substructure of other dogmas, assumptions, and institutions widely accepted within these localized networks but completely incommensurable with the context of other networks operating within the same society. They barely speak the same language and, thus, can barely communicate, much less persuade each other of anything.
If a breakdown in neurotransmitters within an individual can result in schizophrenia, then the breakdown in the transmission of messages through the whole network of society can, just as surely, yield a kind of societal schizophrenia. Multiculturalism is a society afflicted with multiple personality disorder. It is a society in crisis.
Stalin, who waged many battles against facts in his time, still had occasion to lament that “facts are obstinate things.” If Stalin were around today, he would certainly have far less reason to voice any such lamentation. The would-be totalitarian dictator in our contemporary world does not have to work quite as hard to stave off any single entrenched factual paradigm. When reliable authorities no longer hold sway, unscrupulous authoritarians can step in to fill the void. A democratic society requires an informed base of voters making political judgments on the basis of commonly accepted information. A totalitarian society can do without that luxury. For the dictator, the despot and the theocrat, facts are obstacles to be overcome. With every year that passes, we seem to be erecting fewer and fewer such obstacles.
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