The Triage of Truth: How Information Technologies Transform Knowledge

One significant change generates total change. If you remove the caterpillars from a given habitat, you are not left with the same environment minus caterpillars: you have a new environment, you have reconstituted the conditions of survival.
— Neil Postman, 1992.

In 1995, Western society was introduced to a new form of communication: the internet, via the desktop computer, had firmly positioned itself in the homes of millions. This new technology allowed people to communicate rapidly – liberating them from the confines of their local information bubble. While we revelled in the glory of dial-up and broadband internet, it wasn’t until 2007, with the introduction of the ‘smartphone,’ that society really understood the implications.

The internet is considered a ‘General Purpose Technology’: like the printing press, the factory system, and electricity before it, the internet alters the basis for human communication and organization. Thoughts, interactions, and perceptions are not universal – rather, they are responses to different environments. Prior to the printing press, there was a ‘universal’ standard of truth, which descended from the heavens. Our belief system was channeled through our local priest, who provided a direct line of communication to God. Church doctrine prescribed how to live the ‘good’ life, and religious authorities exercised power over definitions of the ‘good’. The printing press facilitated ideological liberation for the lay person, particularly with vernacular translations of the Bible, beginning with Martin Luther. With the standardization of modern English during the Renaissance, and increasing literacy rates, the Church no longer held a monopoly on the dissemination of information in Western society. The people had a new medium.

Each iteration of technology is a new lens through which we can see the world; it is fundamental to the constitutive basis for ‘Truth.’ But this is not a new idea. Francis Bacon, Thomas Jefferson, and Karl Marx all shared this sentiment. The technological tools of human society affect how knowledge is disseminated; they always point to an authority for Truth. The introduction of the printing press created the necessary conditions for the fracturing of church and state authority, leading to the Scientific Revolution. Truth was no longer under the control of the Roman Catholic Church; the printing press allowed ordinary people to question that authority. In the late 19th century, the introduction of the factory system and electricity established preconditions for a new ‘truth’, without episcopal authority. Individuals could believe in themselves, and so the notion of self-determination was born. While individualism might have been born from the Enlightenment, it was the American ideology of self-determination that fractured our universal standard for Truth. This new ‘truth’ is predicated on the subjective value systems of the individual.

General purpose technologies fundamentally reorient how societies perceive information, along with what our standard for truth is, and the value systems that constitute a good life. These technologies, listed above, provide the foundations for modern life. In terms of the distribution of information, we have gone from a monopoly under the state, to disaggregation – starting with the printed word, to an in-home television, to a computer in every hand. What was once controlled is now liberated, and we find ourselves in a state of information gluttony. Now that we can self-select the information that we receive, we can formulate our own notion of truth.

As Marshall McLuhan famously said ‘the medium is the message’: that is, the way that we transfer or present information alters how we perceive or receive it. The Church presented a straightforward, top-down picture of Truth; the printing press challenged it, and the television challenged that, and the internet eventually overpowered the television. Now, there are endless sources of ‘information’ available to people at the touch of a finger. We can click and choose exactly what we want to see, and select the interface in which we see it. Once, we had a standard for truth – and even as Church authority diminished and information became de-monopolized, that standard remained – a universal appeal to Reason. But, in an age of information gluttony, which is contingent upon the unfettered will of the individual, what is the standard for truth?

In our current system, anyone who has access to the internet has a platform to communicate their narrative; to convey information in a particular manner, or to persuade the reader to adhere to some structure of belief. People are obsessed with meeting their subjective needs, and as information becomes increasingly decentralized, we can all fulfill our desires in a manner that is personally befitting. In the absence of universal Truths, we are now living in a society of post-truths.

Our news feeds, Google searches, and social media are the products of unique feed population algorithms; these are based on hoards of data which we willingly provide to legacy institutions. This shift in consumer behaviour to a culture of narcissism – where we broadcast every facet of our daily lives for others to bear digital witness – has enabled these legacy institutions to  predict what we want to see and how we want to see it. When organizations have this authority over what we see, and when our value systems are the result of hyper-individualism, how can we reach a consensus? There have always been contending ideological values, but at least there was an appeal to reason. Now, most discussions are laden with contempt. Unless we share a lived experience with each other, we readily dismiss opposing views.

This unprecedented level of connectivity, in the form of the internet, places policymakers in a completely new environment. The Arab Spring showed how connectivity could lead to a people’s revolution and the downfall of a dictatorship – where protest was infectious, and the will of the people was mobilized into the public sphere. Now, we’re witnessing a historical irony: these same technologies, which were used to liberate people from dictatorships, are becoming instruments of power for authoritarian regimes. We’re seeing a rise in digital authoritarian practices, from social credit systems in China, to new modes of foreign intervention in democratic elections.

So how – in an age where we are all connected, but lack the capacity to communicate consensus – how can we come together to protect ourselves from new forms of authoritarianism? What makes this problem so challenging, is that there is a vicious cycle of negative reinforcement: as we self-select what we want to see, ‘like’ by ‘like’, legacy institutions continue to construct choice architecture systems that reinforce what we want to see. Eventually, these institutions will know exactly what we want. They will eventually know us better than we know ourselves. As we have already observed, this will prop up authoritarian regimes, whose goal is creating political fault lines, forcing our behaviour towards preselected outcomes. In an age of information gluttony, we must become aware of how technology alters our environment, and how institutions and actors use it to control our belief systems. We are coming full circle, back to a society of one, controlled, algorithmically-dictated Truth.