The wicked problem of information disorder

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Edward I – had his own troubles with ‘fake news’

Is the term “fake news” any longer fit for purpose? It seems it is not. Weaponized in the culture wars, it has become meaningless in the context of any serious analysis of what now passes for journalism. Áine Kerr, formerly of Storyful, latterly of Facebook, and now co-founder of NevaLabs, speaking at a Dublin symposium on the subject asks us to forget it. What we have to contend with, she says, is something a little more nuanced – “information disorder”, which comes in two distinct packages, neither very helpful but one certainly more malign than the other: misinformation (incomplete or skewed) and disinformation (purposely untrue/ propaganda).

It would seem that if we want to be serious about tackling the problems of modern media we need to begin by being a little more clinical in our analysis and succumb less to using our categories as terms of abuse.

But whatever we call it, this phenomenon is not new. It has been with us for a long, long time. History records it as a problem which Edward I had to deal with in 13th century England. Henry IV had to deal with the reports of the resurrection of Richard II, the predecessor whom he deposed and then had murdered. A few more people lost their heads for their troubles in spreading that bit of fake news – sorry, disinformation.

What probably is new is that information disorder has now become what is termed a wicked problem, explained by Ms. Kerr as a complex problem for which there is no simple method of solution. In the epoch which fell between Guttenberg and Zuckerberg, controlling information – good, bad or indifferent – with censorship was already a losing battle. In the post-Zuckerberg era it has seemingly escalated to the wicked status.

The Dublin symposium, organized by Ireland’s national broadcaster, RTE, with an eight-member panel of media practitioners, kept drifting back to the question of how to regulate, whether regulation was at all possible and whether it would be any more effective than the clumsy weapon of censorship was in the past.

But whenever people seem to gather to confront this problem they seem to keep failing to address the elephant in the room. This elephant, if addressed might show everyone that the problem is infinitely more wicked that our wildest nightmares suggest. Not only have we got a serious information disorder on our hands, not only is “fake news” our problem but on top of that we have the even more virulent strain of this virus, “fake views”.

In an age where truth is no longer identified as something which we can agree on, where relativism rules the roost and where “facts” for many people are just a matter of “whatever”, information disorders are going to be endemic in our culture. From that condition then inevitably comes the more serious malaise of fake views – because any view, any opinion, any proposed solution to the problems of mankind which are based on a philosophy which makes truth relative and subjective will be a fake solution leading at best to a dead end, at worst to social and personal chaos.

This elephant, if addressed, would tell us that talking about trust, talking about truth or falsehood, talking about good or bad intentions is to talk about morality. The words moral, morality or virtue, if they figured at all in that symposium were only touched on tangentially. Indeed, one had the sense that mentioning them would have evoked at best an uncomprehending silence, maybe even a patronizing consignment to another planet.

The exceptions might have been Fionnan Sheahan, Editor of the Irish Independent, one of Ireland’s national newspapers, and the contribution from Sile Lane, Head of International Campaigns and Policy at Sense About Science. Sheehan made the pertinent observation which suggested that the red faces of Ireland’s governing class which let financial organizations off the moral leash , bringing the Irish economy to its knees ten years ago, might be changing colour again. The implication was that the giant IT companies which have made Ireland their European headquarters are just able to click their fingers and the Irish Government jumps to attention.

All the contributors were deeply concerned about this wicked problem, but without acknowledging the need to go back to these basics and find out how we have strayed so far from them, our bewilderment will not only not be resolved, it will continue to deepen.

Is there any serious human civilization that does not have among its first moral principles that which says, as the Judaeo-Christian Decalogue does, “Thou shalt not bear false witness”? Unlikely. That is a regulation, but it is a regulation because first and foremost it is written in our reasoning minds. The tragedy of the modern age and modern education is that it has abandoned the cultivation of reason in favour of the cultivation of feelings – and without the former the latter is a soggy marsh where humanity may wallow happily for a time but will eventually sink in misery.

The roots of this problem, now of wicked proportions, go back to the false philosophical turning over a thousand years ago which led eventually to the Cartesian “I think therefore I am”. From there it lead right down to the follies of Michel Foucault in our own time. It has lead us into the dead end of subjective morality, a process which Professor Brad S. Gregory of Notre Dame University describes in detail in The Unintended Reformation.

No sane thinking person denies or undervalues the great benefits which thinking humans have brought to our race over those centuries. Sadly, however, many apparently sane people have repeatedly failed to read the wrong turnings philosophy  – anthropological ethical and political – has taken in that time. This misreading, this information disorder has now led us to a point where we have left ourselves, not just with a wicked problem but with a hyper-wicked problem.

One passage in Gregory’s book gives something of a taste of this predicament and the problems it spawns. He says that if morality is simply a function of personal preference, and there are neither intrinsic human goods nor such a thing as human nature, then there can be no moral impediments to, for example, the deliberate genetic manipulation of human beings so as to accelerate the evolutionary self-transcendence of the species, whatever legal prohibitions might happen to remain in place.

We can see that the regulatory provisions which may be put in place to control the internet in any of its undesirable manifestations will only have a legal force, not a moral force. Gregory draws out the barren implications of subjectivism across a number of contemporary issues which we can also connect to the one being considered here.

The “transhumanist” strand of modernity asks, for example, in Gregory’s paraphrasing: Why not try to overcome humanity’s many problems by making human beings obsolete? Perhaps a biogenetically engineered, higher, better, newer, more advanced post-human species will succeed where Homo sapiens is failing. Upbeat transhumanists simply want to enact their choices, to pursue their own good in their own way, rather than to sulk in Weberian disenchantment or uptight hand-wringing.

Scoffing at “bio-Luddites” inhibited by their “sciphobia,” Simon Young declares that “the human adventure is just beginning, and there are no limits to what we might achieve once we embrace the Will to Evolve beyond our human-all-too-human condition.”

In Ray Kurzweil’s expansive vision, “we can imagine the possibility of our future intelligence spreading into other universes. Such a scenario is conceivable given our current understanding of cosmology, although speculative. This could potentially allow our future intelligence to go beyond any limits.”

 With such transhumanists we meet a particularly ambitious, latter-day extension of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, who proclaimed that “a sound magician is a mighty god.”  ln keeping with the dominant, liberationist ideology of modernity, more choices equals more progress. Technological advances provide the means to move forward. Why let mere biology hold us back?

With information supporting the views of thinkers like Young and Kurzweil floating around in our culture, and being taken seriously, what regulatory environment could possibly cope with that? With information disorder rampant in this way – in both its “fake news” and “fake views” modes – we are clearly on the cusp of a new world order. The question is, will it be,

as some hope, a Brave New World, or as others fear, a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World?

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