Sunday, March 20, 2016

How the greatest technology ever developed backfired on us

Natural selection was probably the factor that led the Irish Elk to develop oversized antlers: they were a beneficial feature for the males in the sexual competition game. However, the weight of the antlers was also a burden and it has been argued that it was one of the reasons, perhaps the main one, that led to the extinction of this species, around 7,000 years ago. In the case of humans, we may consider language as an evolutionary advantageous feature, but also as something that may turn out to bring negative consequences very much like the elk's antlers: the tsunami of lies we are continuously exposed to.  Image from Wikipedia

Language is the real break of humans with everything else that walks, crawls, or flies on the earth. No other species (except bees) has a tool that can be used to exchange complex information among individuals in terms, for instance, of where food can be located and in what amounts. It is language that creates the human "ultrasociality," it is language that allows us to get together, plan ahead, get things done. Language can be seen as a technology of communication of incredible power. But, as for all technologies, it has unexpected consequences.

We all know that the sound that we write as "deer" is associated with a specific kind of beast. With this symbol you can create sentences such as "I saw a deer near the river, let's go hunt it!" But, when you create the symbol, in some ways you "create" a deer - a ghostly creature that has some of the characteristics of real deer. You can imagine the deer, even if there is no real deer around. And this symbol has a certain power, maybe you could make a deer appear by pronouncing its name or drawing its symbol on a cave's wall. It is the principle that we call "sympathetic magic", perhaps the oldest and most basic form of magic.

Creating a virtual deer is a useful thing if the correspondence with real deer is not lost. The problem with language is that this is not always the case. The deer you are talking about may not exist, it may be an illusion, a mistake, or, worse, a ruse to entrap and kill an enemy of yours. This is the origin of the concept we call "lie." You can use language not just to collaborate with your neighbors, but to deceive them. We have evidence that our ancestors faced the problem from the earliest written records we have. In some ancient Sumerian tablets that go back to the 3rd millennium BCE (*), we find that among the "me" (the powers) that the Goddess Inanna stole from the God Enki, one is "to utter words of deception".

The question of lying is crucial for human survival. The deer your friend told you was near the river disappears into virtual space: you cannot say whether it was real or not. The stupendous technology of language, developed over hundreds of thousands of years, destroys itself with the unintended consequence of lying.

All technologies have unintended consequences, all are amenable to some kinds of technological fixes. Fighting lies requires evaluating statements and who is uttering them. The simplest way to do it is to base the evaluation on trust. We all know the story of "the boy who cried wolf," probably as ancient as homo sapiens. In its various versions, it says, "if you lie once, you won't be believed again". And it works; it has worked for hundreds of thousands of years and it still works. Think of your current circle of acquaintances; those people you personally know and have known for a certain time. You trust them; you know that they won't lie to you. It is for this reason that you call them "friends," "buddies," "pals," and the like.

But that works as long as you maintain your relationships within a small group and we know that the size of a circle of close relations doesn't normally go beyond some 150 persons (it is called the "Dumbar number"). Within this size, the reputation of each member is known to everyone else and liars are easily identified and contrasted (or even expelled). The problem came when people started living in large cities and states. Then, most people would interact with a much larger number of people than the comfortable Dumbar number. How can we tell if someone you never met before is to be trusted or not? In this situation, the only defense against swindlers is indirect clues: the way of dressing, the way of speaking, the physical aspect; but none is as effective as the trust in someone you know well.

But that was nothing in comparison to what came along with the age of the mass media. Then, you would read things, hear things, see things in the media, but you really had no clue on where these communications came from, nor you could check whether the virtual reality in front of you corresponded to the real world. As mass media expanded their reach, the people controlling them discovered that lying was easy and that they had very little to lose in lying. At the receiving end, there were people confused and unable to verify the information they received. The media could easily tell them lies that would go undiscovered, at least for a while. Think of the story of the "weapons of mass destruction" that Iraq was supposed to be developing before the invasion of 2003. In this case, the lie became obvious after that no such weapons surfaced in the invaded Iraq, but the liars had obtained what they wanted and they suffered no ill consequences from their action. It was at that time that an aide to Donald Rumsfeld is reported to have said, "now we can create our own reality." A triumph of sympathetic magic, indeed.

Then, the Internet and the social media came and they democratized lying. Now everyone could lie to everyone else simply by sharing a message. Truth didn't come anymore from the trust in the people who were transmitting it, but from the number of "likes" and shares a message received. Truth can't possibly be the same as virality, but it appears to have become exactly that in the general perception: if something is shared by a lot of people, then it has to be true.

So, today, we are lied continuously, consistently, and gleefully by about everyone and just about everything. Half truths, pure inventions, distortions of reality, word games, false flags, skewed statistics, and more are the communications we face every day. The tsunami of lies that's crashing upon us is nearly unimaginable and it has consequences, dire consequences. It is making us unable to trust anything and anyone. We are losing contact with reality, we don't know anymore how to filter the innumerable messages we receive. Trust is a major issue in human life; not for nothing, the devil is said to be "the father of lies" (John 8:44). And, indeed, what the anthropologist Roy Rappaport called "diabolical lies" are those lies that directly tamper with the very fabric of reality. And if you lose track with reality, you are lost yourself. That that may be what's happening to all of us.

Some of us find it easiest simply to believe in what they are told by governments and lobbies; others move into a generalized mistrust of everything; easily falling victim of opposite lies. Diabolical lies are fractal, they hide more lies inside, they are part of bigger lies. Consider an event such as the 9/11 attacks in New York; it is by now hidden behind such a layer of multiple lies of all kinds that what really happened that day is impossible to discern, and perhaps destined to remain such forever.

So, we are back to the "boy who cried wolf" issue. We are the boy, we are not trusting anyone, we are not trusted by anyone, and the wolf is here for real. The wolf takes the shape of global warming, of resource depletion, of ecosystem collapse, and more, but most of us are unable to recognize it, even to imagine that it could exist. But how to fault those people who have been cheated so many times that they decided that they won't believe anything that comes from even a marginally "official" channel? This is a major disaster and it is occurring right now, in front of our eyes. We have become one of those ancient deer destroyed by the weight of their stupendous horns. Language is playing a trick on us, backfiring on us after having been so useful for us.

We often believe that technology is always useful and that new technologies will save us from the disasters befalling on us.  I am starting to think that what we need is not more technology but less. And if language is a technology, it seems to me that we are having too much of it, really. We are hearing too many speeches, too many words, too much noise. Perhaps, we all need a moment of silence. Perhaps Lao Tzu saw this already long ago when he wrote in the Tao Te Ching (**)

Much speech leads inevitably to silence. 
Better to hold fast to the void.


(*) From Nin Me Sara, translated by Betty De Shong Meador

(**)  Translated by E. C. Lau

Se also an earlier post of mine "The Empire of Lies"


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)