Facts and Reality

Neal Stephenson ,discussing the internet and social media with the economist Tyler Cowen

“Our civil institutions were founded upon an assumption that people would be able to agree on what reality is, agree on facts, and that they would then make rational, good-faith decisions based on that. They might disagree as to how to interpret those facts or what their political philosophy was, but it was all founded on a shared understanding of reality. And that’s now been dissolved out from under us, and we don’t have a mechanism to address that problem.

In the pre internet days, if one had a theory they wanted to popularize, they had to work extremely hard to put it out into the world, mostly by working through established institutions like news organizations, journals, books, radio, television, etc. That – or stand on the street corner and convince passers by to listen. (My first vivid memory of the latter was walking outside the book depository in Dallas TX – there were 10-20 people claiming to know the truth behind JFK’s assassination, if you only had a couple of moments to hear them out).

Today, however, every human with an internet connection essentially has access to loudspeaker that can reach billions of people.

On the positive side, injustices committed in dark corners of the world can now find light. In theory, humanity can rally behind what are perceived as common good causes. Arab spring is likely the most famous example of this – and there are others.

On the negative side, when every voice (every tweet, every instagram post, every youtube video) is just as loud as the next, and they send conflicting messages with potentially heavily manipulated content, who do you actually listen to? How does anyone know what they’re looking at is “true” anymore? What does truth even mean today, anyway? If you say something is true, and I say that same thing is false, merely because I want to reject your truth for my convenience, what does true mean to the third party observer?

So here we are today – with phenomenons like flat earth, anti vaxxer, and state sponsored manipulation of the American political process. Yikes.

Not sure what to do with this problem – but it was nice to hear Neal Stephenson explain the situation so succinctly while speaking with Tyler Cohen (podcast link above – covers many other topics). For now, our best defense is to think critically and choose information sources wisely. But can 8 billion people do that effectively long-term, as more and more “trusted” institutions lose their voice in the internet noise?

There’s got to be a better way to arbitrate truth for the masses, and reclaim some semblance of common reality…


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