We have information – but are we informed?

“Bits of information provide neither meaning nor orientation. They do not congeal into a narrative. They are purely additive. From a certain point onward, they no longer inform — they deform… I am not sure that the information society is a continuation of the Enlightenment. Maybe we need a new kind of enlightenment.”

These are the contentions of Byung-Chul Han, the Korean-German philosopher, given in an interview with Noēma Magazine.

There are 7.9 billion of us on the planet at time of writing, producing and exchanging an estimated 2.5 quintillion bytes of digital data daily between us (25 million billion billion, which we can round to about 3 gigabytes per head per day).

More pertinent than the absolute quantum is the trajectory, which continues to multiply as the world population grows, and as more of those people live more of their lives online. This appears to be creating a cycle of acceleration whereby more infrastructure and innovation is needed to meet the demand for processing capacity and prevent collapse of systems upon which many now depend. This innovation allows vendors to sell customers the prospect of more information, content, connectivity, all at faster speeds, driving demand further, and so on. In “Earth: The Book: A Visitor’s Guide to the Human Race”, the 2010 letter from the writers of The Daily Show to our alien successors, Jon Stewart observes that the only thing faster than the development of technology is the speed at which we learn to complain about how slow our new devices are.

What you think of this as a historical development – how excited or nervous this makes you – probably depends on what you already thought about a lot of things, and especially about capitalism as our major organising system and of the choices it offers us. It also depends on the information channels you ‘subscribe’ to, what your daily ‘feed’ consists of. Depending where you look, you can find euphoric optimism, or utter terror of what lies ahead. Either can be found in limitless abundance.

All anyone can seem to agree is that this is new, in form at least. Although, even then there are apparently familiar features.

BBC Sounds began 2022 in bracing fashion, marking the one-year anniversary of the January 6th incursion into the United States Capitol Building with the launch of “The Coming Storm”. Over eight episodes, Gabriel Gatehouse tries to unpack and account for the rise of the QAnon family of conspiracy theories. He opens with the parabolic tale of the Malleus Maleficarum, the late 15th century treatise on witchcraft, which ‘went viral’ to a hitherto unseen extent due to the recent invention of the printing press.

The central thesis of the series is clear from the outset. We have this new technology connecting people and allowing them to share information, and no idea what they will do with it, or how the years which follow may turn out. (Stormy, is the prediction).

Quite aside from its technological novelty, the printing press represented a disruption to the governance of knowledge and information. The bodies and orders which for centuries had sanctioned certain books as worthy, condemned others as heretical and deemed many more as just not worth the man hours, suddenly weren’t the bottleneck they had been. There’s a euphoric freeing of the imagination which takes place when it is suddenly possible to write, share, read and think things that someone previously had the coercive power to keep out of your mind.

Any good invention needs a use case. It wasn’t just that this book happened to be written at a time it was suddenly possible to make a previously inconceivable number of copies. You’re not going to use that to print any old muck. According to Gatehouse and his contributors, it was the author, Heinrich Kramer’s obsessive detail on the sexual practices inherent in witchcraft and his meticulous prescriptions as to how these women be dealt with that made it ideal for a censorship-bypassing machine.

“For the next two centuries, Europe was gripped by an orgy of misogynistic violence. Hundreds of thousands of people, most of them women, were tortured and burned alive as witch fever spread.”

Thus, the invention of the printing press, an event which looks, at a first glance, like a moment of indisputable progress and advancement, is reframed as midwife to a dark and regressive period. Over the longer run, it’s clear that, without the printing press, our modern world would be unimaginable. But the experience of those living through that change to collective thought and order was entirely different. Actually the phrase ‘going viral’ is instructive. We can think of it like an organism with no natural defence against a novel disease, or against an invading species. Whether you call the virus prejudice, superstition, misinformation, disinformation or dogma posing as fact, what it is indisputably is information.

With this dark prologue playing in your head, Gatehouse tries to explain how countless people around the world, from diverse backgrounds, have become convinced that contemporary governmental bureaucracy is an elaborate cover for a secret system of paedophilia and child-trafficking. Who benefits from lies like this circulating? A generous read of the evidence suggests that the Republican Party and particularly those in the Trump-sphere have been careful not to alienate or offend those in the QAnon movement, let alone attempt to disabuse them of any of their claims.

Perhaps you’ve listened to “The Coming Storm”, but the chances are that you haven’t. Because who’s got the time to see and hear everything? If you and I were to meet, you could list off thirty series and twenty films you’ve seen in the past five years which I haven’t (and may never see). Every conversation I have about TV and, particularly, podcasts, convinces me that our experiences are quickly diverging. The journey from the era of two TV channels and one daily news programme, to infinite competition for the eyeballs and earbuds of digital natives, represents a generational shift which is difficult to overstate. Which parent of a now 18-year-old, or for that matter 30-year-old, could have prepared them as a child for what their daily experience would consist of as an adult? The internet, and particularly Reddit, is characterised in “The Coming Storm”, as not only unbound by objective reality, but as an infinite choice of realities. Your thing could be gaming, cryptocurrency, history of warfare, ‘researching’ global conspiracies, or some mix of the above, and there is a community out there for you to go and commune with; to tell you no you’re not odd for playing that CD single you bought in 1997 eight times on the spin first thing when you woke up.

Only a few weeks after releasing “The Coming Storm”, Gatehouse would be back in the BBC Sounds podcast feed wearing a different hat, that of a foreign correspondent formerly based in both Ukraine and Russia. A persistent theme of “Ukrainecast”, which Gatehouse co-anchored for its first month, has been the information war which rages in parallel with the brutal and violent attacks on the citizens and infrastructure of Ukraine. Denial of seemingly objective truth is simultaneously enraging and disorienting.

“Give what back?”, said the bully to the child, lying blatantly while holding the toy behind his back.

Denial of wrongdoing heightens the sense of injustice. Not only am I being wronged, but the perpetrator takes no ownership of this wrong, instead has it that I am delusional and cry over nothing. It’s a scene so recognisable, an emotion so salient, The Simpsons even put the phrase “Give what back?” into the mouth of Fidel Castro as he steals a Trillion Dollar Bill from Montgomery Burns.

YouTube video

But, of course, in Vladimir Putin’s narrative, the world we experience is made up of naught but lies. Each of us reading this is either oppressed by, or actively party to, an ‘Empire of Lies’ that is the American-led West. ‘False flags’ are everywhere; narrative is manufactured by elites to maintain order; nakedly invented stories ought to be the least of anyone’s worries since all news is ‘fake’. So nothing requires evidence and truth is nothing more than what the powerful decide is so.

I haven’t attempted to write anything of length about the War in Ukraine. Having no expertise on the region or on warfare, it hasn’t seemed right to add to the noise while people have fled for their lives. But for a period I couldn’t concentrate on much else, so spent much of March compulsively consuming all available and up-to-date information about the conflict, as well as the backdrop to it. One newsletter I subscribe to described the War as one being fought over stories: at stake is the right to tell an accepted narrative of who a land belongs to, whose memory is true and whose is manufactured, who is kin and who is enemy. This positions the invasion as contiguous with the battle for truth and narrative occurring online every day and described in “The Coming Storm”. If history is to be written by the winners, then let’s win and write it.

I’ve been teaching for several years about the augmented nature of truth, consensus and participation in the digital era. Students have often provided me with the best examples. They will tell me about a celebrity I hadn’t heard of being ‘cancelled’ because of a statement that was taken out of context – about how, once the mob labels someone as a sexist, the burden of proof shifts to them to disprove the accusation and usually that burden is unmanageable. Or, rather than listen to BBC journalists dismantle conspiracy theories and provide a social history of where they came from, the student will have ventured well away from gated mainstream media and listened to a citizen journalist investigate a conspiracy I’ve not heard of, but which they can refer to by shorthand.

All of these examples seem, to some degree, ethereal, intangible, and ultimately ignorable if you were so minded. Even the most extreme version of online harassment can be lessened in its impact by switching one’s phone off. There is no switching off, or ignoring away, the physical ruination of cities and their inhabitants, nor the pain of those fleeing violence or forced to await its arrival. (That is not to say, by the way, that we don’t routinely ignore ongoing violent conflict in various parts of the world, just that ignoring it doesn’t make it go away in anything like the way that deplatforming and removing figures from online spaces can reduce their impact). While I have called students’ attention to the enduring importance of physical things and to the fragile infrastructure underlying our emerging systems of hyperconnectivity and data processing, I hadn’t ever anticipated discussing why a warring army might target telecommunications masts along with water and electricity plants.

There is something incongruous about viewing these two ‘wars’ through the same lens of battles for truth. The physical military conflict is so visceral, its wounds so swiftly inflicted and so deeply felt. It doesn’t feel like an escalation of Russia’s meddling with the western mind, but something altogether more blunt and offensive.

I found myself thinking about the War while reading Han’s interview with Noēma, in part because I now read and watch everything mentally braced for Ukraine to be brought into the conversation. Sometimes this is as a reminder of the seriousness of the days we are living through (the height of the stakes should, say, such-and-such-a-leader be punished for, or distracted by, a scandal of their own making). Just as often, it is held as some sort of proof of one’s own point, say that western liberalism has lost focus and taught itself to find oppression in tiny actions, thus taking its eye off the true totalitarians. Then the theme itself, of a battle over truth, seems so intrinsic to Han’s argument that information does more strengthening of in-groups than uncovering of the truth. I started to wonder what Han’s line on the War in Ukraine would be. As the thought crept in, I found myself re-reading passages which could, if you were to squint, carry double-meaning:

“Stability comes over long stretches of time: faithfulness, bonds, integrity, commitment, promises, trust. These are the social practices that hold a community together. They all have a ritual character. They all require a lot of time. Today’s terror of short-termism — which, with fatal consequences, we mistake for freedom — destroys the practices that require time.”

It’s like a rorschach test. Were I to tell you that Putin himself included these exact lines in one of his late February dispatches, you might read them and think they were of a piece with several of his running of themes: thinking in centuries; preserving and restoring social cohesion and tradition; questioning western narratives and precepts such as what it is to be free.

This was not a unique experience for me. It has become a rare and slightly disorienting experience to approach written or spoken comment with no sense of where the author is coming from. Social media gives you all kinds of cues and clues ever before you click through to the source text. Who has posted it, when and why? What were the accompanying remarks? Who else is sharing, and what is the mob saying? Without these cues, you will I find myself looking for my own, unable to relax until I know the terms of engagement. Sometimes I will become aware of an event some hours or days after its moment of attention and have an instant and deflating realisation that collective judgement has already been passed and the world has moved on – like finding a plate of sandwiches in the common room and realising they’re stale from yesterday. This becomes a barrier to engagement, and even if I do read up, it’s as much to retrospectively make sense of all the ‘takes’ I’ve been exposed to since the. These are new emotions which are folded into our processing of information. Han would probably argue that by reading his views in search of cues and ancillary information, essentially trying to chart his position relative to mine on a map of ideas, that I’m proving his very point. I’m not really listening, not really learning, just searching.

Much of Han’s thinking and writing is about the current epoch as that of ‘late stage capitalism’. The nature of capitalism is to the forefront of discourse in a way that it hasn’t been for most of my life. For many years, describing our society as capitalistic was like describing the air as Oxygen-rich. One of the themes of this thoughtscape is that of unsatisfying abundance. Humans can now have such quantities of so many things, that enjoyment and utility is increasingly fleeting. The abundance of information is like so much candy floss. We consume it, knowing it isn’t nourishing, and to the point that it no longer provides any satisfaction. Precisely what late capitalism might give way to is less clear, but selling people what they don’t need when many can’t attain what they do need now sounds to many like the definition of unsustainable.

I listen to music while I write. Arcade Fire’s new album WE has been playing to me while composing this. The composers seem to also be going big on the theme of epochal change with pairs of tracks such as “Age of Anxiety” (I-II) and “End of the Empire” (I-IV).

“I unsubscribe,

This ain’t no way of life,

I don’t believe the hype”

Have a listen if you have time. Consider pairing with Byung-Chul Han in conversation with Nathen Gardels of Noēma. Or just listen.

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