Monday 10 August 2020

A New Dark Age?

Genseric's Invasion of Rome, by Karl Bryullov, 1833
By Allister Marran
Are we living through a mini Dark Age in what was supposed to be a time of Enlightenment? Will history see this moment in the same light as it saw the decline of Western civilisation during the thousand lost years from 500 to 1 500 AD?
The democratisation of and free access to information with the rise of the Internet, mobile phones, and social media should have made people smarter, more knowledegable, and aware of the world around them.

Being able to access information previously locked behind the paywall of a university education, a military career, or a scientific laboratory seemed to be a renaissance-like utopia ushering in the next stage of the socio-cultural evolution of humankind.

But instead, we are now ostensibly far dumber for it, most notably because information without context is worthless, and the weaponisation of information and context, by nefarious actors trying to forge a new narrative that seeks to divide and conquer instead of unite and build, has had a devastating effect on world politics and social cohesion.

The value of information is that it is held in the trust that it is authentic, and this is where the manipulation of data has seen the biggest gains for bad actors seeking power and influence.

A false fact, or distorted perspective, can be drip fed into social conscience using complex social media algorithms which identify those most willing to buy into the lie using confirmation bias. The influencers are encouraged to share and comment, this lending the lie credibility, and ensuring that the common man or woman will continue to share it downstream, until a lie becomes generally accepted as truth for those wanting to believe it.

The right uses innate prejudice and hatred to rally support for bigotry and lies, which the anonymity of the Internet and a carefully chosen Twitter handle protects like a KKK mask of old.

And with the advent of cancel culture and left wing propaganda, people are too scared to challenge obvious falsehoods that emerge on the left, for fear of being cancelled themselves, a modern version of the Salem Witch Trials if you will.

This has permeated into every facet of life, not least of which being science and education. No student or professor dare take on any controversial research project, lest they be cancelled, stripped of tenure, or harmed if their scientifically verifiable results are taken to task by anyone on the left or right. Truth is no longer important; pandering to an already decided audience is the only thing that matters.

This is how progress stalls. This is how the last dark age began, when science and truth was made to conform to the beliefs and norms of the religious conveniences of men and women.

Perhaps humankind was not meant to have unfettered access to knowledge and information, as with great power comes great responsibility, and the average person does not have the ability to filter out the nonsense and internalise the good data.

The current course on which we are headed has dire consequences for everyone, as we have not existed this close together physically, yet far apart ideologically, for almost a hundred years, and without some method of bringing us all back together again, human being will either end up in conflict, or less desirably, enter another thousand years of Dark Ages.


Keith said...

A fascinating discussion, Allister, about a very timely matter of critical importance.

Yet, might what’s happening by way of the democratization of information conflict with what’s normally imagined as a Dark Age? That said, I see our electronic devices as empowering and enslaving at the same time. Empowering, because of the historically massive window on the world the devices provide; enslaving, because of our rapidly growing dependence on the devices to get things done.

How to curate and vet the vastness of information, and how to make it safer from misuse by individuals and groups with (benign or malign) agendas, is still a policy in the making. Unfortunately, too often the policymakers don’t understand the technology well enough to forge a way forward, regulatory or otherwise. There’s insufficient accountability. So the hi-tech CEOs get to rule the roost, themselves largely unwatched.

Meantime, I view this profusion of information, even when put to its worst uses, as merely the teething phase of the Information Age. There’s vastly, probably unimaginably more to come. Ultimately that will make this current phase seem, in hindsight, part of a simpler life. The point being that the Information Age, despite its current warts, won’t be undone or redirected — and certainly not turned back. At the moment, efforts just to tame what’s going on have arguably proven unsuccessful.

The modern-day equivalent of Prometheus giving us fire is today’s tech titans giving us unbound information — admittedly with an upside and a downside, which depends on intent. As part of that, you appear to suggest that science is every bit as vulnerable as all else; but, just maybe, the rigor of science’s methods largely inoculates science from being as vulnerable. For the most part, that’s been my observation regarding at least the natural sciences.

Meanwhile, the information unto itself (in a vacuum, that is) is useful only up to a degree. Information is just one step, more potentiality than actuality. Information requires context. It’s as much due to the cleverly, creatively AI-driven software and apps that render all this information useful — that hand people the functionality making information useful. Perhaps therein really lies the power of information — it’s the algorithms that bring the information to life in ways that change our lives.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

It depends of course on how one defines Dark Ages and Enlightenment. Allister Marran defines them in terms of a mentality. That could be debated, but I think it seems most basically to be true.

One could put the core problem like this. People are tending to think today that every statement is finished, final, and irrevocable, not part of a development or experiment whereby one is testing, evaluating, moving on. Pi has always understood that posts are part of an ongoing discussion, sometimes no more (no less) than a question. They are not the final word.

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