BladeRunner and the Synthetic Panopticon

From Modern Mythology:

Part 1: This Is Only A Model

Wehave a serious problem brewing. We are living in alternate realities. In one reality people see Trump’s incessant lying, and no one in power seeming to doing anything to stop it. Others see him as battling the deep state. Some see Brexit as a blind idiot kamikaze mission, while others see it as fighting back the evils of globalism.

These separate realities are not making equivalent claims, but they are both claims, narratives that claim to represent the way things are, and that’s what I’d like to examine here.

How could this divergence of reality come to be? There are already thousands of articles on misinformation, disinformation, and journalism flying by us every day in the US, in this very strange year, 2017. Rather than add to that, I simply intend to make several big picture observations that seem to be getting very little attention. Our present journalistic crisis comes to be not because people are merely misinformed about the truth, but because of a fundamental misunderstanding about how social power determines the construction of truth.

“All things are subject to interpretation, whichever interpretation prevails is a function of power and not truth.” — Nietzsche

Note that this aphorism doesn’t say “there is no truth,” nor does it question whether we all ultimately inhabit a single reality, only that whichever interpretation of the truth prevails is a function of power. Truth relies on an accurate or corresponding representation of reality. The authority to determine what is a more accurate picture of reality is obviously of prime social importance. It is a key basis of power. In a perfect world, we could talk of truth and reality singularly. But we only have our narratives and experiences with which to evaluate what that is. Our ideological values heavily factor into this construction, always, and they also factor into how the resulting truth is evaluated and commodified.

And what does power seek? That demands at least an article in itself, but a popular 1984 quote lays the heart of its raison d’etre: more of itself.

We know what no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.

Many might object that be that as it may, 2+2 do not equal 5. However, this interpretation of social dynamics doesn’t contest the legitimacy of the scientific method, iteratively approaching closer approximations of truth (a model) distilled from reality, through experimentation. This premise was presented by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in their 2010 book, The Grand Design.

Model-dependent realism is a view of scientific inquiry that focuses on the role of scientific models of phenomena. It claims reality should be interpreted based upon these models, and where several models overlap in describing a particular subject, multiple, equally valid, realities exist. It claims that it is meaningless to talk about the “true reality” of a model as we can never be absolutely certain of anything. The only meaningful thing is the usefulness of the model.

However, social dynamics aren’t exactly like physics, either. Not being able to recognize the difference between this “perfect world”, where all actors act rationally toward the personal and common good vs. how people actually engage, is a serious problem. And in the current media environment, we’ve got to catch up if we don’t want to be lost in a semantic apocalypse.

In other words, the appeal for truth — whether CNN’s recent “this is an apple” advertisement, or Fox New’s old “fair and balanced” — itself enters into the marketplace of ideas. Or perhaps a more apt metaphor is a battlefield, especially when we consider the amount of capital, technology and labor that states, corporations, and billionaires can throw at furthering their personal agendas.

Cognitive biases, innate responses like tribalism, the myopia of fear, etc. are all being leveraged via the media, all around us, all the time. The purposes behind that are various, and quite often reduce to a mechanized feedback loop of what excites or engages us. For instance, Sean Parker recently said the following:

“The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, … was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’”

“And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you … more likes and comments.”

“It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”

This includes all forms of media, since it’s all digital narrative building of a collective sort. Myth making, even. That’s the real point, and it seems to be drowned out across the spectrum. This profit-centric system can be leveraged for any purpose, so long as that actor has the resources to bring it about.

We’re all too familiar now with the ideas of information war, but all conflict of this type is fundamentally a contest over who gets to define the narrative. Force in a traditional military sense is at most the tip of the spear, but the real conflict is cultural. The history of U.S. military action in Iraq after 9/11, or British, Russian, and U.S. conflict in Afghanistan present a variety of examples of how little “hearts and minds” seems to have been understood or effectively applied. If we recognize that reality is fundamentally a conflict over the power to define how the truth is interpreted, do we also recognize that it operates on dynamics that have absolutely nothing to do with our dearly held moral values?

An assumption some may draw from this is that vested interests have distorted reality; therefore there is no reality. However, that obviously isn’t quite right, either. What obscures clear thinking on this is that reality essentially has two meanings: the “state of things as they are”, which makes no assurances of what that state is, and the question of if things exist at all. The first poses an epistemological framework, the latter, an ontological one.

The former we might consider the social-linguistic definition. That shouldn’t be conflated with the absolute existence of a thing. No, it can only speak to the identity and meaning that we apply to what we’re given. And it is for this reason that the truth is always an open question. Even in a scientific sense, there are questions rendered no longer interesting because our models are fully sufficient to deal with any situation that may arise. That is not the same, however, as maintaining a monopoly on the truth.

Read full article on Modern Mythology.

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They'll really publish anyone these days won't they?
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