The wicked problem of information disorder

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?

Is Machiavelli alive and well in Silicon Valley?



Floundering might be the word which springs to mind as we look at the spectacle of poor Mark Zuckerberg trying to cope with – or, depending on your point of view, making excuses for – the failure of Facebook to protect us from predators of one kind or another.

For Mr. Zuckerberg the search for a solution seemed to be in the same territory from which the creature which has made him one of the wealthiest men in the world has come – technology. Totally absent from his horizon was the one feature in the landscape where the solution ultimately must lie. We suspect that it may be AWOL for the same reason that it was also absent from all the imagination and energy which went into Dr. Frankenstein’s creation more than two centuries ago. There are indeed those who see Dr. Zuckerberg’s – I’m hazarding a guess that at this stage he has picked up a few honorary doctorates along the way – creation as something of a mirror image of Mary Shelly’s.

Sadly, unlike Mary Shelly’s monster, which was embodied only in fiction, a wise and salutary tale about the folly of a man who gave life to a powerful man-like instrument he could not control, Mark Zuckerberg’s creation is a real nuts and bolts, now apparently out-of-control, creation.

There seems to exist a multiplicity of black holes in the universe of modern technology. As the Netflix series, Black Mirror, worryingly illustrates for us, our lives can be sucked into these in any number of ways with the most dire personal and social consequences imaginable.

The unifying element which should offer us protection from most of these black holes is embodied in the single phrase, moral sense. The absence of this sense in the integral structure of all the myriad of pursuits of modern man is the source of many of the woes which accompany them in the form of unintended consequences. “Unintended” may modify culpability for those consequences but if our poverty of intention stems for our neglect of serious and responsible reflection, then culpability is present as darkness is present with night.

But let us not be personal about this. Mark Zuckerberg is a child of his time and if we can learn anything from his predicament it will be by looking beyond his and his company’s problem to the bigger picture.

Zuckerberg has now apologised to Facebook’s users for the “breach of trust”. What “trust” really means in the world of big tech is anyone’s guess. This breach allowed University of Cambridge researcher, Aleksandr Kogan, to harvest the details of about 270,000 people who took part in something as seemingly innocuous as an online quiz. A former Facebook manager has warned now that hundreds of millions of users are likely to have had their private information used by firms in ways that they know nothing about.

But all the talk about this is now about control, technical control, regulation and more regulation. Does anyone really understand any more why we regulate? If the moral sense which the modern world  now lacks were a real force in our society our need for regulation, controls and all the rest would be much less. If all we have are external regulations and controls we are lost souls.

A “reckoning is coming” for Facebook and its fellow tech giants, said The Sunday Times – and “not before time”. The issue in this scandal is not whether harvested Facebook data enabled Trump to steal the US election. “It did not – however much liberals would love to overturn the result.” Rather, it’s that Facebook has failed to protect the personal data of its users. The company has been “unforgivably lax” about third-party use of this information, agreed  The Times. It has arrogantly shirked “the responsibilities that come with power”, and been wilfully blind to the consequences of its inaction until problems have reached the headlines.

The black hole into which the private information of “hundreds of millions of users” has plummeted may be the least of the threats to the common good emanating from Facebook’s army of busy bees. Joseph Ratzinger, one of the greatest moral voices of our time, back in 2005, just a year after Facebook moved from being a glint in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye to its launch in 2004, gave a prescient address at Subiaco in Italy.

In that address Ratzinger – who would become Pope Benedict XVI a few weeks alter – spoke of  the  “disquieting… possibilities of self-manipulation that man has acquired. He has plumbed the depths of being, has deciphered the components of the human being, and is now capable, so to speak, of constructing man himself, who thus no longer comes into the world as a gift of the Creator, but as a product of our action, a product that, therefore, can also be selected according to the exigencies established by ourselves.”

As we know, there are plenty of people who are concerned about the manipulative characteristics deliberately built in to modern technology – from the colour coding of iPhone screens to the subtle designs of homepages across the internet. Others are concerned about the contribution which Facebook, for example, contributes to the cancer of gender confusion sweeping across our culture with its amoral subscribing to a bewildering plethora of genders.

If our world, our cultures and our civilization suffers from a moral malaise it did not begin – nor will it end –  with technology and the power it places in the hands of men. In one understanding its roots are of course immemorial and the struggle it demands of us is endemic in our nature. But in recorded history we can also see a turning point at which western civilization fell deeper into the mire of confusion of which Facebook’s amorality is just another modern manifestation.

The turning point which occurred at the dawn of the modern age – and the falsehood at its heart – led Machiavelli to offer his advice to those who exercise power in this world. The spirit of this advice is also responsible for the destructive elements at work in forces of modern technology. This is not to deny any of the good elements. I use Facebook and will continue to do so.

Dr. Brad Gregory in The Unintended Reformation, his masterful study of how our civilization has reached the point at which it now stands, explains that Machiavelli’s ideas about human nature influenced the rejections of the Christian (and Aristotelian, and Platonic) claim about the inseparability of morality and politics. In the Florentine’s view, efforts expended in trying to live virtuously could only seem quixotically futile, aspirations to create a correlative moral community unrealistic. In his views about human nature, Machiavelli would find successors in Hobbes, Hume, and many other thinkers.

If in the following quote from Gregory’s book, we substitute in our mind the wielders of technological power for the wielders of political power we will see how Machiavelli is alive and well in Silicon Valley.

In theory, at least, Machiavelli’s practical distinction between the demands of political life and moral norms severed the exercise of power from teleological virtue ethics in public affairs, the “realism” of the former contrasted with the “idealism” of the latter. Successful and therefore good politics was unavoidably immoral, and immoral politics was the norm.“ No longer aspiring to encompass traditional morality, politics becomes instead “the art of the possible”—and as people grow accustomed to new human realities, their views change concerning what is and is not possible. What his contemporaries and Reformation-era successors who offered advice to princes continued to regard as the telos of human nature within an inherited Christian worldview, Machiavelli consequentially disdained as the “imaginary world.” Human beings are what they are; the world is as it is; the effective exercise of power requires the abrogation of morality; successful rulers override the virtues with virtu. One could exercise power or be moral, but not both.

But while “successful rulers override the virtues with virtu“, Silicone Valley overrides all morality with science and technology.

Ratzinger, who like Tiresias, perceived the scene, and foretold the rest—explained in his Subiaco address, how in the modern world the principle is now valid, according to which, man’s capacity is measured by his action. What one knows how to do, may also be done. There no longer exists a knowing how to do separated from a being able to do, because it would be against freedom, which is the absolute supreme value. But man knows how to do many things, and knows increasingly how to do more things; and if this knowing how to do does not find its measure in a moral norm, it becomes, as we can already see, a power of destruction.

Man knows how to clone men, and so he does it. Man knows how to use men as a store of organs for other men, and so he does it; he does it because this seems to be an exigency of his freedom. Man knows how to construct atomic bombs and so he makes them, being, in line of principle, also disposed to use them. In the end, terrorism is also based on this modality of man’s self-authorization, and not on the teachings of the Koran.

Until we escape from the delusion that we are masters of this universe, that we are orphans in this world and that we are answerable to no one but ourselves, then our fate will be to succumb to our inept regulations and continue to weave our way around them and wriggle our way out of them. This is the miserable human condition to which we condemn ourselves to by our arrogance.