Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Beliefs spread without being tested for truth

 Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedienceLetter from Aldous Huxley to George Orwell, 1949

How to fight modern evil: Huxley versus Orwell, Ahrimanic versus Luciferic evil

Gossip at scale

The Internet, smart phones, and social media (ISS) have set human communication back about 20,000 years. That is, we now rely more on gossip than we have since we lived in small tribes.

1. Human evolution produced gossip. Cultural anthropology sees gossip as an informal way of enforcing group norms. It is effective in small groups. But gossip is not the search for truth. It is a search for approval by attacking the perceived flaws of others.

2. As a social enforcement mechanism, gossip does not scale. Large societies need other enforcement mechanisms: government, religion, written codes.

3. Our ISS technology changes this. It makes it possible to gossip effectively at large scale. This in turn has revived our propensity to rely on gossip. Beliefs spread without being tested for truth.

4. We have increased the power of gossip-mongers and correspondingly reduced the power of elite institutions of the 20th century, including politicians, mainstream media, and scientists.

5. The result is that we are living through a period of chaos. Symptoms include conspiracy theories, information bubbles, cancel culture, President Trump’s tweets, and widespread institutional decay and dysfunction. 

6. To escape from the chaos, we will need new norms of behavior that incline us away from gossip. 

I will elaborate more below.

In a small-scale prehistoric society, gossip is a useful tool for enforcing group norms. I want my reputation in the tribe to be good. If the tribe decides that I am a cheater, then I may be subject to group punishment. I have to be careful not to be caught taking too much food or being a sexual deviant or being cowardly in conflicts with other tribes.

Someone who is skilled at acquiring and spreading information can have high status in the tribe. As receivers of gossip, we are excited to be “in on the secret.” The gossip-monger does not necessarily need to speak the truth. Telling lies may eventually get you in trouble, but not necessarily. If the victims of a false rumor are unable to fight back effectively, people who engage in false gossip may be successful.

As society scales up, gossip becomes ineffective. Rumors don’t spread easily from village to village, so I can get away with violating norms when I venture out and deal with strangers. In order to keep this from happening, societies evolve institutions that control behavior in impersonal interactions. Government. Religion. Written codes. 

The solution that our society arrived at is what we call the liberal order. It includes tolerance for innovation, free speech, and individual preferences. It includes the rule of law. It includes formal institutions for resolving disputes, such as elections, courts, and scientific peer review. I worry that gossip at scale is what is undermining liberal values. 

With ISS, gossip can scale. You can start a rumor, and if you are skillful, you can get it to spread. You can achieve viral spreading with a graphic video or with a tweet that is edgy and catchy. 

As with small-scale gossip, large-scale gossip does not necessarily have to be true. If it makes people feel that they are “in on a secret,” a false rumor can take hold. Hence QAnon. Hence the claim that Michael Brown of Ferguson was killed by racism. 

Skills that gave one status in Analog City, including the use of reason and the scientific method to sift through evidence, are less effective in achieving status in the gossip-laden environment of Digital City. Meanwhile, skill at dressing up rumors and creating what Jason Riley termed “poetic truth” (i.e., a falsehood that is appealing to believe) has increased in effectiveness.

I should note that we have never had social defense mechanisms that worked perfectly against “poetic truth.” For example, for many Germans after World War I, “stabbed in the back by the Jews” was a poetic truth. 

In principle, by giving us better access to information, ISS gives us stronger defense mechanisms against gossip than we had before. But in practice, this advantage is more than offset by the greater power that ISS gives to rumor-mongers. 

We are immersed in gossip. Many people believe that George Floyd was murdered by a racist cop. But others believe that Floyd was not killed because of his race, and some believe that he died of a drug overdose. All is gossip.

We live like teenage girls. We hate to be left out of the gossip circle. We want to be talked about (get liked, shared). We want to check our phones constantly in order to make sure we are aware of the latest rumors. And we live in fear of being subjected to adverse rumors about ourselves.

In The Transparent Society, David Brin argued that in a world where surveillance technologies would become nearly impossible to evade, that we would have to develop forbearance as a social norm. In his metaphor of a restaurant, although technically I can overhear the conversation at another table, I choose not to.

I believe that we will need to adopt norms that restrain our urge to trade in gossip. Otherwise, our descent into chaos will go further.

Finding The Satirical Line In A Seemingly Satire-Proof Time

It’s not easy out here for a novelist. “Good political satire should be imbued with the spirit of speaking truth to power. But what does that concept mean when the powerful are impervious to truth telling?” – Washington Post