What happens when people are given too much information? They feel overwhelmed, which quickly becomes apathy and political paralysis. In this episode I analyse the philosophical and critical origins of our current political malaise, where many people feel the system is incapable of facing up to real and serious problems. I focus in on concepts of information distribution, freedom of speech and a phenomenon I call ‘The Society of the Statement’ in this departure from our usual content.
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People keep saying that the world has gone mad, that things are spinning out of control, that the end is nigh. Apocalyptic scenarios ranging from nuclear war to bio-terrorism, plagues and climate change to economic and ecological collapse are frequent guests on our news coverage. But in our sub-3-second pageload society they are gone as fast as they arrive, resulting in an array of nagging doubts in the back of our minds, but no constructive dialogue about how to move forward.
Obviously I believe some of these scenarios are more likely than others, and to clarify I don’t really believe in any of the apocalyptic scenarios, however much I believe that a serious degree of societal destruction is unavoidable. I’m not sure where that places me on the optimist-pessimist scale. I’m neither glass half full nor glass half empty, I’m someone who is concerned about whether there’ll be any glasses in 20 years, and can identify a lot of reasons why there might not be.
But it is a curiosity of vital importance to the future of our species that at the moment we’re becoming most aware of our potential demise, we also feel least able to do anything about it. So I’d like to offer my thoughts on how we got to this point, where we’re dominated by a sense of paralysis in the face of impending doom. Trigger warning: this will not be a particularly happy episode.
To be sure, I don’t want humanity to die out. I like people, despite the myriad minor irritations we cause each other on a fairly constant basis. I’m not one of those people who fetishes their own suffering, or desires it for others or thinks we’re a terrible species who deserves what’s coming to us. All the anthropo-hatred of cheap, lazy slogans like ‘we’re a cancer on the planet’ is, I feel, entirely counter-productive. It capitalises on coddled bourgeois apathy, in that it always blames someone else and is never about taking personal responsibility or inspiring, encouraging or organising others to do the same.
Because, and here’s a controversial truth that isn’t part of the populist dialogue, we’re the only creatures on the planet who care about our environmental impact. Worms don’t give a shit about their carbon footprint. Birds do not worry that if they eat all the worms today then tomorrow there won’t be any worms for them and their children. Cats do not carry out climate science, except in the very limited sense of following the warm patch around the room as they sleep for 22 hours a day. Dogs do not theorise about capitalism containing the seeds of its own destruction.
This notion that we just ‘don’t care’ is adolescent, useless and fundamentally not true. Again, it is an expression of frustration and scapegoating as a self-deluding avoidance tactic. A way of fooling ourselves so we don’t feel so guilty about our mistakes, and so that we can more or less continue as before and not have to consider radical changes in our way of life. Like all cynicism, it is a form of self-bargaining and excuse-making, which has come to dominate our discussions on everything from pollution to poverty to war.
Too much information
One of the reasons for this state of affairs is that we have access to too much information, relative to our capacity to understand and make use of that information.
Obviously the internet is the greatest, fastest, most widespread system of information distribution ever created. The internet has been heralded by its supporters as a means of liberation from the old, restrictive information distribution systems (such as books) but in my opinion it’s become just another kind of prison. One aspect of this is information addiction, in particular social media addiction. The endless-scroll of most social media platforms means you never reach a conclusion, there’s always more to look at and react to in a superficial and fleeting way.
One result of this is the loss of any sense of dialogue and dialectic having a purpose, aiming at some sort of end goal. It’s just the never-ending conversation that we’re all part of. What we’ve seen is the rise of total information warfare, whereby every claim or statement has to be immediately contradicted by counter-claims and contrary statements, which in turn are immediately contradicted by counter-claims and assertions, and so on. It’s a struggle for territory – quite literally, a war for hyperspace. We don’t measure the success of our political views or social values by them actually being demonstrably superior in terms of real world consequences, we measure them by how many likes they get on facebook, or how many times they are retweeted.
Exacerbating this is our very shallow concept of freedom of speech – a notion that long-term listeners to this podcast will know I simply do not believe in. To my mind, if you have to resort to shouting ‘freedom of speech’ as a last-ditch defence of what you’re saying, then what you’re saying is almost certainly bullshit. It’s like when an adolescent kid shouts at their parents ‘I can do what I want and you can’t stop me’ – it’s nothing more than an assertion of will power in the absence of any better justification for saying or doing something.
This is not where the concept came from. The notion of free speech arose in response to didactic governments and ruling classes and other institutions, especially religious ones, that made certain ideas or values or viewpoints unsayable. They were decried as heretical threats to the social order, and people were actually physically punished, even imprisoned, for uttering or advocating them.
In that context the concept of free speech has a sacred power of resistance. But we don’t live in that context any more, so the concept does not have the power it once did.
Instead we live in a situation where freedom of speech is used as nothing more than an excuse of final resort – it’s what people use when they haven’t got a good reason for saying what they’re saying. It is literally the equivalent of ‘I can say what I like and you can’t stop me’. In particular it has been co-opted and bastardised by alt-right edgelords who always make out that they’re somehow the victims in our society and thus are fighting against the establishment, when in reality their values are those of the establishment (once you strip away the liberal rhetoric and politically correct cover stories of the establishment).
These two things combined – an extremely shallow concept of free speech and information overload – are both symptoms and causes of our present state of being. They are manifestations of our lack of overriding criteria for separating good ideas from bad ideas, for distinguishing between truth and bullshit.
What is especially ironic, from my perspective, is how firmly embedded the alt right and the new conservative movement are in the postmodern condition. They love railing against the relativism of postmodern philosophy and critical theory, despite having never read any, but they are among the first to deploy postmodern recognitions when you argue with them.
For example, postmodern critical theory is deeply sceptical towards any notion of absolute truth, and sees all truths as subject to context, political pressures, societal expectations and so on. Some have argued that the postmodern condition is little more than a widespread recognition that all truths are somewhat conditional and contingent on their social context. The new conservatives, Jordan Peterson perhaps being the most well known example, decry this as leading to a kind of relativism where truth doesn’t exist anymore.
And yet, when you argue with Peterson’s followers almost all of them immediately apply this recognition to everything you say, saying ‘you just believe that because you’re a liberal or a left winger or a feminist’ and so on. They treat all argument that they don’t want to believe as though it is contingent, and treat their own beliefs as though they are absolutes, without recognising the abject contradiction. But then, this is what Peterson does time after time after time, again without recognising the contradiction.
Obviously it isn’t just the alt right and the new conservative movement that is guilty of this, but they do it in an especially dumb and obvious way that only survives, replicates and expands because of the lack of any overriding criteria for separating truth from bullshit. Peterson is a symptom and a cause of the postmodern condition, while on the face of it being one of its sternest critics.
Towards a new critical theory of information
Another dimension of this total information warfare, whereby every claim is seen as part of an ideologically-motivated strategic deployment of information rather than a fact-in-itself, is that our critical theory of information hasn’t kept up with the technology for distributing information.
That is to say, it isn’t just ordinary people who are swamped with information and feel like they are drowning in a soup of 1s and 0s – academia hasn’t caught up with the new technology. The vast majority of academic books about the internet are either technical descriptions of how the internet developed, or analysis of the consequences of that development. The notion that we need a radical reappraisal of the whole scene – that we need to develop new and better ways to think about information and relate to it – is rarely if ever part of the academic discussion.
We’ll take as our example what we might call information activism – that is the strategic use of information to try to bring about some kind of result or change in the real world. More simply, it’s the notion that media coverage – whether conventional or otherwise – can change the world.
Again, I’m not convinced by this, at least in the simplistic way that most journalists take for granted that their work has some kind of effect. Context is key.
Back in the days before the internet, in particular before the days of mass media, we lived in an empty information world, i.e. where information was scarce. Quite literally our reading choices were the Bible and maybe one weekly newspaper.
In that context the deployment of new information, or at least information that challenged underlying societal presumptions, was quite effective. The first time that people heard challenges to the political and religious dogma it had quite a significant impact and sometimes motivated and inspired social change. Likewise the first time that people heard that certain foodstuffs make it more likely that you get cancer, or about corporate pollution or that women should be able to vote or any other example you like. The information had a greater impact.
In the mid-20th century a theory developed which is now known as the Shannon-Weaver model of communication, sometimes branded The Mathematical Model of Communication. I read about this when I was a precocious teenager and I’m not going to outline all of it but the key concept for me is the notion of entropy and redundancy. Expressed simply it’s the fact that the first shop in a street that gets a neon sign will stand out a lot more than the 20th shop to do that. One neon sign stands out, but when everyone has a neon sign none of them stand out.
As applied to information activism it is the fact that the first time, indeed the first few times, that an idea is expressed it has much higher social impact than the 100th or 1000th or 1,000,000th time that idea is expressed. The earlier expressions have a much higher entropy, a much higher chance of inspiring or affecting social change than later ones, which have higher redundancy.
To take an easy example, the first inter-racial kiss on US TV was in an episode of Star Trek, between Kirk and Uhura. It caused quite a stir, particularly as it came in the wake of the civil rights movement. That was a moment of high entropy, informationally speaking. These days a TV show containing a kiss between a black woman and a white man isn’t at all noteworthy, it is redundant as a means or motivator for social change.
Despite this, strategies for cultural-information activism haven’t moved on. Progressives still think that showing (for example) a black person as a corporate leader will somehow effect social change and empower black people. But it won’t, because we’ve already seen that a hundred times and it’s become part of the background noise.
This is partly because we now live in a full informational world, where we are provided with so much information and on such a constant basis that no individual piece of information has much power at all. To maintain the street full of shops analogy, it’s the equivalent of shop owner thinking that putting up one more sign saying ‘50% off selected products’ will boost sales, when every shop in the street has a dozen signs in the window about different offers. It’s not completely ineffective, but it’s far less effective than it was the first time.
This is a problem for journalists, who tend to assume that publishing anything, any information, has a real world effect. This is a kind of magical thinking, that exposing corruption somehow makes the world less corrupt. The first time massive corruption was exposed, yes, it had a significant impact on the populus and the political system because it was a moment of high entropy. But in a world full of information, where people are surrounded by allegations of corruption, one more story about corruption has little discernible effect. Again, it just becomes part of the background noise.
So our way of thinking about the consequences of deploying information hasn’t evolved to keep up with the technological mechanisms for deploying information. We are still in this mode of magical thinking whereby the desired consequence comes about through some mystical process resulting from a journalist writing about something they’ve discovered.
Indeed, the evolution that has taken place has gone in the opposite direction, whereby the act of exposing the information has become an end in itself. The logic of exposing information to inspire the public to apply pressure on the system and thus forcing that system to change has largely been abandoned in favour of the exposure itself being the aim. Imagine the Bible was just the book of Revelation, with nothing else coming after it, and you’ve got a good image of the present-day news media landscape.
This is what I mean about the failure of critical theory to keep up with the information paradigm – from journalists to academics we’re still thinking and behaving like we live in an empty information world and thus each new revelation automatically has a social impact. In reality we live in a full information world where most revelations are drowned out by other information and hence have little or no impact at all.
‘So why do I do what I do?’ I hear you ask. Fair question.
Aside from all the personal reasons such as taking joy in creating media and being obsessed with films and so on, it’s largely because no one has done this before. No one has taken on the entertainment liaison office structure using FOIA to map this out and gather evidence of what the government is doing. And for what it’s worth it is not me publishing this information that I think has the most impact on the government. After all, my regular audience is a few thousand people, sometimes getting up into the tens or hundreds of thousands – a tiny minority of the people in the world. I believe I have more impact on the government by asking for this evidence in such a way that they cannot refuse to give it to me, than by publishing that evidence and deploying it as information.
As such, my journalism, my information activism, has high entropy and therefore a much greater probability – mathematically speaking – of bringing about societal change than someone who is saying the same stuff that a whole bunch of other people have already said a million times.
The Society of the Statement
Another symptom and cause of this paralysis of our political dialogue – and hence, of our political system – is what I call the Society of the Statement. Adapted from Debord’s phrase The Society of the Spectacle this is the phenomenon of people caring more about statements than actions, and hence the same actions continue because people put more energy into countering statements than into counter-action.
The language we use to describe political, cultural and social conflict is dominated by phrases about the language we use For example, we hear about the ‘need to send a message’ and to ‘make a statement’ and how people ‘speak out about’ issues. Politicians talk about ‘starting a national debate’ or ‘starting a conversation’ about policies and decisions, rather than about the decisions and policies themselves. Likewise, ‘talking points’ used to refer to a way of condensing political debate so it focuses on the important stuff within the time and space limits of media coverage but now it refers to the outer limits of debate.
The principle consequences of this phenomenon are an increase in focus on the words used by our political leaders and their PR representatives, and a concomitant loss of focus on the policy decisions they make. The debate becomes about the debate itself, rather than on real results in the actual world. Our ‘national conversation’ is largely about the ‘national conversation’, rather than the subjects of that conversation – in an utterly self-referential and largely pointless way.
The most prominent example of this is Trump’s twitter account, which gets far more attention than anything Trump has actually done (or failed to do).
But it also feeds into things like Russiagate, with people putting much more emphasis on how Trump and Putin interacted in a press conference than on the Nord Stream pipeline or the international missile treaty or anything else with real-world consequences. Trump saying he doesn’t believe the Russian government interfered in the election is taken by Russiagaters as a sign that the Russian government interfered in the election. The statement is a substitute for evidence, because you can interpret a statement however you like.
By turning actions into statements – i.e. things to be interpreted, rather than responded to – we contribute to our own sense of helplessness, futility and paralysis. Rather than countering action with action, we engage in a struggle over what things mean rather than what real-world impact they will have. We literalise government policy, and the debate around government policy, making it self-reflexive. Thus, we engage in a struggle over what words mean and which words we should use to counter those words, thus removing ourselves almost entirely from responsibility for counter-action.
Naturally, this doesn’t just apply to words but to all symbols and representations. This is why there’s such a fervent debate over who should be the next James Bond, with opinions ranging from ‘it should be a black trans woman’ to ‘it shouldn’t be a black trans woman’.
When communism fell and the Cold War ended, the Left largely abandoned ideological struggle as it lacked – and still lacks – a straightforward way to ideologically distinguish itself from the establishment. It fled into the cultural realm, focusing on how we represent things rather than on the things themselves.
So casting a black guy or a woman as the next James Bond is seen, by many on the Left, as an accomplishment, an end in itself that somehow shows that they are winning. In reality this would gain symbolic territory by surrendering ideological territory. So we can still have a movie franchise that glamourises government-issue sociopaths running around the world killing people, but now some of those sociopaths are transsexuals or immigrants. The underlying values and actions don’t change, merely the media representations of them.
Likewise one of my pet peeves is how the BBC have wholeheartedly committed to trying to promote women’s football as though it is equal to men’s football, when it isn’t. It’s a semi-professional sport played at a lower standard, with far less commercial appeal. Maybe one day the women’s game will equal or even surpass the men’s game but the notion that here and now, female footballers should be treated as equal to male footballers and thus be paid the same and so on, is ridiculous. It’s just a denial of reality in favour of a symbolic victory.
What especially bugs me about this is that the BBC’s coverage of women’s football almost invariably uses pictures of white, blonde female footballers. Reading a story on the BBC’s website is like reading a Nazi propaganda pamphlet, the visuals really are that Aryan. Likewise, the women’s World Cup is being held this summer and on the day I’m actually writing this there’s a story on the BBC site about how the England women’s team did a day’s training with the Royal Marines, perhaps the most patriarchal institution in the whole country.
So the BBC is all in favour of Aryan supremacism and militarised society, as long as they can maintain the fiction that it’s somehow unjust for part-time women’s footballers to not be paid as much as full-time men’s footballers. A symbolic victory, a literal ‘winning of territory’ in terms of visual space on the BBC’s website, while ideologically nothing changes. Frankly, women have a lot more to fear from the patriarchal militarisation of society than they do from not being paid as much to play football as men are, but I’m sure the BBC’s sports editors think they’re being progressive.
The Society of the Statement involves an element of magical thinking, coming from the old progressive philosophy that winning symbolic victories is a precursor to winning real-world victories. And it can be, because symbols are one aspect of the arsenal of the establishment in maintaining and expanding their power. I am not saying that symbolic struggle is pointless, I’m saying it tends to encourage magical thinking whereby symbolic victories will somehow transform society. And that it often runs the risk of making the symbolic victory the end in itself, as though calling someone a racist on twitter is, in itself, a win, rather than (say) actually convincing someone to stop being racist. Retweets are now worth more than actually persuading someone to behave better.
Another problem I have with the notion of freedom of speech is that it is, ironically, utterly relativistic. By placing the focus on people’s right to say whatever they like, the quality of what they say becomes irrelevant. So it doesn’t matter if what they are saying is simply untrue, what matters is that they have the freedom to say it.
In an utterly predictable plot twist this has resulted in a public dialogue that is all about battling for identity-territory and has nothing to do with winning arguments, persuading people to change their minds or even in moving the conversation forward. We just hear the same talking points being recycled over and over, regardless of whether they are true or useful.
This is particularly evident in televised political debates where the moderator asks a question or makes a statement and then each candidate has a set amount of time to respond. What never happens is that one candidate responds to what another candidate has said and explains why it’s wrong or misleading. They just go through the motions, spouting a bunch of well-rehearsed, trite bullshit. At the end of the evening no one is any the wiser, the conversation is still exactly where it was at the start of the debate.
This is the opposite of a dialectical process. Going all the way back to the Socratic dialogues written by Plato, the aim of the process was essentially the Sherlock Holmes method of excluding everything that could be shown to be untrue and whatever was left would therefore be the truth. This conflicts directly and acutely with the notion of freedom of speech, and we’ve prioritised freedom of speech over the dialectical method. Thus, everyone has their own little bit of territory to say whatever they like, but what they say is exactly what they were saying 20 years ago.
Nothing gets excluded because that would be exclusive and means some people would not be allowed to say whatever they want to say, even if what they want to say is idiotic and untrue. There is no criteria for choosing only the good ideas, and then letting the public vote on which good idea they prefer. Instead the public is given the choice between a tiny handful of good ideas and a bunch of lies, bad ideas and emotionally appealing horseshit. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a majority choose emotionally appealing horseshit.
But it isn’t really their fault, because they don’t know any better. Our education systems place more priority on producing a population that will follow and obey authority than they do on producing a population who can distinguish truth from lies. After all, authorities have to lie to cover-up for their corruption and incompetence, so they don’t want large numbers of people being able to spot a lie when they see one. But then you get someone like Trump who comes along and lies better than his opponent, which upset a lot of people.
I’ve said before that the answer to the fake news conundrum is to teach people how to distinguish between truth and falsehood. But because that isn’t on the agenda because it would totally upset the applecart of power, instead we get things like reducing the size of groups on Whatsapp. No, I’m not kidding, this is something they’ve actually done to ‘prevent the flow of fake news’.
The idea is that if there are less people in a group then there are less people you can send a fake news link to, thus reducing the speed at which fake news spreads. The fact that this also reduces the speed at which truth can spread seems to have been totally overlooked. No doubt, the internet is a factor in the problem of lots of people believing things that aren’t true, but it’s hardly the decisive factor. Lots of people believed lots of untrue things for thousands of years prior to the internet, but if you make it a technical problem then you’ll come up with technical solutions. It’s actually a philosophical problem, and a resulting education system problem, but that’s too complex and requires too much attention. Much easier to just ban a few facebook pages and reduce the group size on Whatsapp.
The amusing thing is that in adopting these technical solutions the social media giants are destabilising their popularity, and without popularity they’re just websites. The system caused these problems in the first place and the solutions they’re adopting are only going to make the problems worse. This isn’t problem-reaction-solution so much as problem-reaction-exacerbation-reaction-exacerbation-reaction-apocalypse.
Because all the real world problems, such as overpopulation relative to resource production, massive scale pollution, ecological and environmental destruction, never-ending war, financial over-extension and economic recession are all still there, and most of them are getting worse. We bitch and bicker over territory in hyperspace while the real world continues to get sicker and more poisonous. We devote more time to arguing over what words we use to describe, e.g. climate change than we do to finding ways to develop and fund large-scale carbon capture or carbon-neutral energy production. We devote more energy to blaming the Jews – sorry, ‘international bankers’ – for our own addiction to consumption than we do to finding ways to create less pollution.
But as I said at the top, I’m not interested in playing the blame game or scapegoating the entire human race or in pessimistic or apocalyptic predictions. Part of me enjoys the chaos because if we are going to find our way out of this situation then this is a necessary part of the process. We’re very much in a political adolescence, as a species, and I’m not claiming to have the answers to all the world’s problems. I have quite a lot of suggestions that I think would be a hell of a lot better than what we’re doing now, but I can’t be sure if they’d work or what the consequences would be.
I do believe that in order to progress a debate or discussion that you have to remove some idiotic, untrue things from the table otherwise you end up going round in endless circles, paralysed, incapable of forward movement. I do believe that the large-scale adoption of magical thinking whereby media coverage and symbolic victories are seen as either the cause of social change or as social change in and of themselves is a major cause of this sense of paralysis and futility that dominates our political culture. I do believe reality will intervene and it’s going to be a massive slap across the face for most of the world’s population, and that we will probably need that kind of shock therapy to shake ourselves out of our current malaise.