Last week I began untangling a string about how we as a species have evolved in the past two centuries into behaviors that run counter to our own survival. I described how modern public relations magicians had been able to capture the group attention with seductive language, and though behavioral psychology and cognitive science, to segment and manipulate how people get information or act upon it.
There are many people, some of them self-described neoluddites, who simply disconnect from the Matrix in an attempt to escape it. They may cancel their Facebook account. They may stop watching cable news or voting for either of the major parties. But they still gather information, even if it is from alternative, more palatable sources for them. They may think they have escaped the Matrix but the Matrix does not think it has lost them. They are still datapoints in the algorithms of pollsters, especially if they fall into he undecided category. They are now in the category of “those who are attempting to escape the Matrix.” Globalized technological civilization does not permit escape. It is like a cult, with many traps to prevent you from ever leaving.
Even dedicated neoluddites may inadvertently use or consume manufactured terms like climate change instead of climate chaos, pre-owned cars instead of used cars, or Homeland Security, mother country, freedom fighters, and gluten-free “all-natural” (an oxymoron).
George Lakoff, author of The Elephant in the Room, likes the example of Mother Russia, drawing as it does upon timeless respect for Mother Earth (Mat Zemlya). It is one reason why today so many Russians support the “police action” in Ukraine. By thinking of your nation as your mother you associate it with your childhood experience. These are among the ways that social engineers, and Lakoff includes himself, manipulate culture into believing ideas that are totally fictitious — by honing in on our herd instinct that we have conserved over evolutionary time as a mechanism for group survival and the reason we cluster in towns and find solace in the safety of relationships with family and neighbors whom we trust.
Tristan Harris, whom some may recall from the recent Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, describes himself an “an American technology ethicist.” After studying Freud, Bernays, Luntz and public relations at Stanford, he worked as a metasystem designer at Google. Now he has a TED collective podcast, Your Undivided Attention, where he interviews insightful disrupters like Kate Raworth, Audrey Tang, Daniel Schmachtenberger and Yuval Noah Harari. In a recent podcast interview on Nate Hagens’ The Great Simplification, he explained our predicament this way:
HARRIS: The important thing to establish here is that the mind can be persuaded. Everyone is persuadable. … You’re always using language and when you use language you’re casting spells that create a framework for seeing reality. And we just have to be aware of this, because increasingly there are actors that are better and better at knowing which language to use to get us to feel or believe one way or the other. And then you link this with the tech equation — technology is getting better and better at reinforcing certain language patterns over and over again.
HAGENS: I just hired a coach to help me with various efforts with my organization and one thing she said off the bat was that the language I used to describe our situation is too negative. I say “the problem.” Instead I should say “the challenge” or “the opportunity.” And the facts are all the same but the language that I use tends to be too negative because I’m freaking terrified about what’s coming so naturally I have negative sounding words.
It is not necessary to this situation that there be some evil genius behind a curtain manipulating our thoughts, the sort of Ministry of Truth found in George Orwell’s 1984 (published in 1948). We are doing it to ourselves, more or less innocently, because whenever we click a thumbs-up “like” for some friend’s post from a pro-Trump rally or for a photograph of an abortion rights demonstration, we are throwing raw meat to the bots in the basement who adjust our social media feeds thereafter to be pro-Trump or pro-abortion and erect a shell around us, moderating whose posts appear on our screen, what news headlines we see, how we are stimulated or soothed, even what possible Tinder dates we get to swipe.
Naturally, we are alarmed when we hear this. Maybe we write our politicians, or complain at one of their stage-managed town meetings. And they pledge to haul Mark Zuckerberg before the court of public opinion and stage a mock trial to expose his ties to Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. Congressional pronouncements, or hearings, are mostly Kabuki theater, operating for drama, screenviews, clicks and swing voters, but then if you are Putin or Xi, it’s the best news you could hear, because there are plain fault lines within the populations of countries that threaten you. So then Russian and Chinese bot trolls elbow aside the Israeli and Saudi bot trolls to buy silent ads pushing for what makes both sides more angry. They turn up the temperature. Protest becomes sedition.
HARRIS: That’s what my colleague Renée DiResta calls amplifiganda because they’re just selecting what your own domestic voices in your country are saying — the most polarizing and divisive voices — and they’re just piling onto those things. So you can think of the news feed algorithm behind Facebook and Twitter and so on as a fault line finder… and then it just puts an amplification loop on that fault line. It’s like turning up the contrast in a photograph where all the lines suddenly get really visible.
What do they do in that circumstance? They lash out, futilely but dangerously. The damage they do is more to themselves — and “free” societies — than to perceived or real enemies, and the more desperate they become, the speedier they hasten their own demise.
The Department of Homeland Security has secretly set up a “Disinformation Governance Board”, only informing the public about its plans for the institution after it had already been established.
The disinformation board, which critics have understandably been calling a “Ministry of Truth”, purportedly exists to fight disinformation coming out of Russia as well as misleading messages about the US-Mexico border.
“It sounds like the objective of the board is to prevent disinformation and misinformation from traveling around the country in a range of communities,” Psaki said. “I’m not sure who opposes that effort.”
The answer to the question of “who opposes that effort” is of course “anyone with functioning gray matter between their ears.” No government entity has any business appointing itself the authority to sort information from disinformation on behalf of the public, because government entities are not impartial and omniscient deities who can be entrusted to serve the public as objective arbiters of absolute reality. They would with absolute certainty wind up drawing distinctions between information, misinformation and disinformation in whatever way serves their interests, regardless of what’s true, exactly as any authoritarian regime would do.
I mean, is anyone honestly more afraid of Russian disinformation than they are of their own government appointing itself the authority to decide what counts as disinformation?
We went from a massive narrative control campaign about a virus, which people accepted because they wanted to contain a deadly pandemic, straight into a massive narrative control campaign about Russia and Ukraine. Without skipping a beat. Like openly manipulating everyone’s understanding of world events is just what we do now. Now we’re seeing increasingly brazen censorship of political dissent about a fucking war that could easily end up getting us all killed in a nuclear holocaust, and a portion of the Biden administration’s whopping $33 billion Ukraine package is going toward funding “independent media” (read: war propaganda).
Nothing about the state of the world tells us that the people who run things are doing a good job. Nothing about our current situation suggests they should be given more control, rather than having control taken away from them and given to the people. We are going in exactly the wrong direction.
Harris tells Hagens that we live in an increasingly complex world where technology is redefining freedom of speech — a world where computers can flood the public marketplace with synthetic media of videos of things that didn’t happen — of photos of faked nerve gas attacks in Syria or bombings in Kharkiv. Where do privacy and free speech get protected there? Is sharing faked videos to millions of people giving them informed choice?
These are not yet answerable questions. Perhaps that is because the framing is wrong. We can’t solve hyperwicked problems with standard anti-wicked thinking.
We’ll continue our more advanced anti-wicked thinking next week, same time, same place. Hyper-jumps or not, take the red pill.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.
As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.
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