Monday, July 28, 2014

The Great War and the rise of propaganda

The Great War started one hundred years ago, on July 28, 1914. It was later known as the first world war, but the term "Great War" better conveys the enormity of something that had never happened before in human history. Here I propose an interpretation of the war based on the emergent properties of complex systems: the triumph of propaganda.

One hundred years after the start of the Great War, we are still struggling to understand what caused Europeans to decide that it was a good idea to kill each other by the millions while staying in humid and lice infested trenches. Political and economic factors are often mentioned, but are hardly sufficient. Wars have been around from the beginning of human history, but had never reached the size and the level of ferocity of the Great War.

What made the Great War so destructive was the power of what was later called "propaganda" (and which today we tend to call "consensus building"). In turn, propaganda was a classic case of an emergent phenomenon of complex systems. It was an unexpected result of the diffusion of literacy in industrialized countries. As an example, by the end of the 19th century, France had achieved a nearly 100% degree of literacy in its population  (image below from Wikipedia). Several European countries, including Germany, Britain, and others, had reached similar rates.
People were taught to read and write because literacy was a useful ability in a rapidly industrializing society. But, for literacy, just as for many other things, there holds the law of unexpected consequences. Once most people were able to read and write, the rules of the game of communication changed completely. Before the age of literacy, governments had to rely on town criers screaming "hear ye, hear ye!" in order to tell their subjects that a war had been declared and that they had to enlist in the army. With literacy, people would read newspapers and were told not only that they had to enlist, but how good and beautiful it was to enlist to fight against the evil monsters that the enemies were.

In a classic case of reinforcing feedback, propaganda fed on itself. As people became more and more convinced to be on the side of good against evil, the war became harsher and more out of control, generating more hate and more propaganda. In part, this disastrous spiral was a spontaneous phenomenon, but soon governments learned how to exploit it. It took some time to develop the right techniques, but we can pinpoint the beginning of modern war propaganda methods with the sinking of the British ship "Lusitania" by a German submarine in 1915. Allied propaganda exploited the sinking in ways which we can easily recognize as a standard part of "false flag" operations: the extensive use of the media to demonize the enemy. These technologies are still commonly used today and are perhaps more effective than ever.

Today, images and movies are used to complement and replace the written world of a century ago, but the basic mechanism of propaganda remains the same: governments can reach their subjects with a tremendous barrage of false or distorted information. People are not normally equipped to defend themselves from this onrush of disinformation and tend to react either believing in it or taking refuge in bizarre conspiracy theories - often manufactured as part of more false flag propaganda operations.

The emergent phenomenon of propaganda during the Great War took most people by surprise and, after the war was over, there were several attempts to understand it and - if possible - control it. Edward Bernays was a pioneer in this field with his 1928 book "Propaganda". He was an optimist and thought that propaganda could be used for good purposes. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to control a self-reinforcing phenomenon and today we are as sensitive as a hundred years ago to the waves of hate which periodically engulf the public opinion. The case of the non-existing "Weapons of Mass Destruction" which led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is the most recent full size manifestation of this phenomenon. Others may be in the making right now.

So, a hundred years later, the story of the Great War is a lesson on how difficult it is for us to manage complex systems. Our society, one of the most complex systems that ever existed in human history, is subjected to destructive transitions created by emergent control phenomena which appear out of nowhere: unpredictable and uncontrollable. Propaganda feeds on itself and creates waves of hate which generate destructive wars. The illusory perception of abundance of oil and gas created by fracking leads to the diversion of immense amounts of resources to a task which is leading us nowhere. Waves of self-reinforcing optimism in the media lead to financial bubbles and then to destructive crashes, as it happened in 2008 and may happen again.

The war propaganda of one century ago looks to us hopelessly naive. But the core ideas developed at the time of the Great War are still with us, although often in subtler and more effective forms. The diffusion of the Internet is adding layers and layers of complexity to the once simple mechanisms of propaganda and the fragmentation of the infosphere makes it even more difficult to control it. Never in history, we have faced such an incredibly complex system which is shaping our perception of the world. The infosphere is quickly becoming a game of mirrors where multiple images of the same thing scream at each other "I am the real one".

Where is it all leading us? We don't know, we cannot know. The future, as usual, is a dim reflection of the past. So, the Great War is part of our past, but also of our future. With its more than 10 million deaths and with its incredible mix of love and hate, it is still part of the way we are, part of the way we see the world, part of the way we react to the unknown, to the mysterious essence of the universe.


These words by Olaf Stapledon (last and first men) may give us a hint of what we are facing.

Great are the stars, and man is of no account to them. But man is a fair spirit, whom a star conceived and a star kills. He is greater than those bright blind companies. For though in them there is incalculable potentiality, in him there is achievement, small, but actual. Too soon, seemingly, he comes to his end. But when he is done he will not be nothing, not as though he had never been; for he is eternally a beauty in the eternal form of things.

Man was winged hopefully. He had in him to go further than this short flight, now ending. He proposed even that he should become the Flower of All Things, and that he should learn to be the All–Knowing, the All–Admiring. Instead, he is to be destroyed. He is only a fledgling caught in a bush-fire. He is very small, very simple, very little capable of insight. His knowledge of the great orb of things is but a fledgling’s knowledge. His admiration is a nestling’s admiration for the things kindly to his own small nature. He delights only in food and the food-announcing call. The music of the spheres passes over him, through him, and is not heard.

Yet it has used him. And now it uses his destruction. Great, and terrible, and very beautiful is the Whole; and for man the best is that the Whole should use him.

But does it really use him? Is the beauty of the Whole really enhanced by our agony? And is the Whole really beautiful? And what is beauty? Throughout all his existence man has been striving to hear the music of the spheres, and has seemed to himself once and again to catch some phrase of it, or even a hint of the whole form of it. Yet he can never be sure that he has truly heard it, nor even that there is any such perfect music at all to be heard. Inevitably so, for if it exists, it is not for him in his littleness.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)