Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

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"


  1. Ugo:

    Effective personal communications go beyond just “telling the truth”. When communicating with other people it is important to understand who they are and how to judge their statements. Even when they are telling the truth there will always be a slant to what they say.

    Recently we moved to a small town. The weekly attendance in our church is about 200 people. With a group this size you know and trust most of the people — and those you don’t know you can quickly find out about them from people you do know. It’s not a question as to whether people in the community are lying, it’s more about understanding who they are. For example, one person may have rather an abrasive manner. But you learn that this person is actually very kind — so when they say something that rubs the wrong way you just shrug your shoulders. Other people may offer to help with a project but they have a reputation of not following through. And so on.

    And of course, it works in reverse — everyone else knows your quirks.

    Given that you will be working with these people for years it is important to establish trust. And you do this not just by telling the truth but through use of that rather old fashioned virtue: tact. This even applies to social media. Our community is facing a potentially divisive and controversial issue. I set up a blog to report on what is going on but have focused on sticking to the facts rather than talking about peoples’ feelings.

    As we move into increasingly difficult times it will be important for all of us to become involved in communities of this size. And there are two keys to making such communities work. First, everyone will have to make a contribution. Second, we will all have to work with others, even if we don’t like them or if they have different views of the world.

    When it comes to global issues such as climate change I find that the discussions within the community are quite honest and people tend to be quite receptive — once more because we tend to trust the people we know.

  2. A very nice article indirectly explaining why we must use the RID-model as a political tool to take control of our resource management:

    Bongard just made a summary from his speak at the Etiology Congregation, summarizing 7 discouraging facts. I put them here in Norwegian, use Google Translate:

    Now Bongard is translating his book into English all by himself, as he didn't find any publisher to help him. This in spite of that it has sold more than 2500 exemplaires in Norway.

    Hope you'll write a review from it when he's finished?

  3. One reason is also that language has inbuild presuppositions, wich distort the message itself. Would be useful for you to find more about this.

  4. Ugo, it seems to be that language has also always been used as a means to deliberately differentiate and by default, exclude one group of humans from knowing another. This seems to be more the case the more lies and deception become common place seems to serve people as a protection from the mental confusion you encounter with unknown or distorted language and deceptive behaviour, so in a way this language will still convey truths or real facts but only to a few.

    It is easy to lie, if people cannot speak the language used or their understanding of it is poor or inadequate. While English has predominated as the de facto world language, other forms of language have become more robust and more widely used, and their has been a great deal of effort to revive lost or near extinct language forms. I think that generally national languages as used by most people have become more perverted and distorted to the point where it loses its meaning. So, if your an insider the meaning, of the deception or its contrary meaning, is well understood but if your an outsider it becomes opaque. For example, I am struck at how as the corporate-fascism what we politely and deferentially call modern business, has morphed into a globalised empire answerable to no sovereign state, the language of business and corporations has increasingly ascribed meaning to words or phrases which are contrary to the commonly understood meaning.

    These developments were eloquently captured and categorised by a former speech writer to the Australian PM,Mr Keating a Mr Don Watson, in his book 'Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words'.

    The corporate courtier class have adopted this language without the understanding of that language's true intent was, to deceive ( the word 'spin' is a classic example of a word we know it means lying but its true meaning is to rotate). IT makes them look clever or like they know what is what. There are legions of organisations called Public Relations and Advertising (Propaganda Bureaus) whose only real activity is to generate lies and deception along with self publicity and self interests of elites worldwide. The adoption of these tools and meaning has meant that meaning derived from a common or accepted understanding of what a word describes or does grammatically is fragmented and becoming lost. Curiously but understandably the ever adaptable human being has quickly generates an alternative set of meanings or 'language' which gives a sense of inclusion or common understanding, so we have the language of cryptic syllables or parsed words known as texting now coexisting with a host of other dialects or past languages. This is perhaps more a phenomenon of younger people but then they are developing and learning language and do it better than older people. The most obvious and common example I find is the phrase 'going forward', used by corporates and now adopted by the political and technocratic classes, itself it is the most banal and meaningless phrase, devoid of a grammatical subject or object, that somehow is meant to mean something but actually means nothing, to a person who is rotating the motion I guess is a form of direction or going forward.

    I can only think of the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. I find it increasingly difficult to communicate with anybody in positions of privilege or power these days or understand what they are saying without a great deal of effort decoding or trying to establish meaning from the text or speech. Even though I had the privilege of a classical education with several languages, I find this exhausting, and now retreat to a small rural property in the mountains where there is at least peace and quite from the cacophony of media, mischief and simple imbecilic language that is used to mask the facts we have entered the age of limits and planetary decline. It is much easier to live with a work with a small rural community where we can agree on much and work together as we need (the 150 persons).

    1. Right. I had not thought of the similarity with the biblical story. The tower of Babel is normally intended as meaning that people spoke different languages, but maybe they just thought they were speaking the same language but, actually, they were giving different meanings to the same words

    2. Quite probably Ugo. I not so long ago had to look at a biblical quotation (not because I am religious, on the contrary, I regard religion as the ultimate delusion) quoted often by Christians and Evangelists as proof of faith. I went from the English, to the Latin to the Hebrew, and in each they were different and thus could be construed differently. But the original text a Hebrew translation actually was so different as to mean the opposite.

    3. Translating can lead to different meanings, for a variety of purposes.

      When I was a kid, I borrowed a several-volume history of philosophy from a Yale PhD neighbor. I remember reading the proof of God’s existence by Thomas Aquinas and seeing an obvious flaw: confusing “End” as meaning “Purpose” with another meaning, “Termination”. Then it occurred to me that this was “the” (or “a”?) meaning of the myth of the Tower of Babel. Aquinas got hoisted on the same petard as the builders of that Tower. To a Christian (full disclosure: I am one), this can show that God wants us to relate to Him on His terms, not ours. To a nonbeliever (full disclosure: I was one for many decades), this can show that Stupid is older than homemade sin. Of course, there are more interpretations, and any individual person can hold several of them at any particular time.

      “Translation” and “Interpretation” are fuzzy words with fuzzy meanings. We should not bemoan the lack of precision; precision is all too easily the enemy of accuracy. Zen has a tradition of capitalizing on this.

    4. These are interesting points; especially regarding the Bible. It is written in a language that only a few specialists can understand and we must trust them; because for a layman it is impossible to get to the true meaning of the original text; supposing we have something that can be regarded as the original text. I wrote a comment on this point here

  5. Lying?

    Check this out - it will blow your mind!

  6. Nice article! No one wants to tell a story other than what people want to hear. We have the opposite of the boy who called wolf problem. We have academic publishers who will not publish anything unless it gives it gives views that will not be too worrying to potential customers. The general press and politicians are even worse.

  7. This is a very interesting blog which contributes a perspective i feel is missing in this article.

    The rise of the west is due to a single accident: we discovered truth telling. We are the only people who discovered it, and paid the high cost to establish it as a commons – as normative infrastructure – in manners, ethics, morality, law, philosophy and science. And so it is truth telling that separates the west from the rest. All western excellences are the consequential result of truth telling. The ‘killer apps’ of western civilization are the product of a single technology: truth telling.


    That the combination of the european civil war to contain germany was a catastrophe for the west in that it cast doubt upon the western (aristocratic) order just as the thirty years war had cast doubt upon the prior (religious) order. That the cosmopolitans started producing as the enlightenment change rolled across eastern europe. And that just as the anglos(empiricsts/Locke-Smith-Hume-Jefferson), french(moralists/Rousseau) and germans (rationalists/kant) had attempted to restate their group evolutionary strategy in modern terms, so did the jews(pseudoscience/lying) as a universal moral strategy. Women freed from labor under the industrial revolution used these arguments to reform slavery, and claim men were their enemies and oppressors.

    Once the slaves were freed, the women also demanded equal representation, and within one generation after obtaining it used ‘the great lies’ of the cosmopolitans to undermine the western order further, creating a century of pseudoscience, the destruction of the church, the destruction of the family, and the conquest of academy, state and media by women’s interests (r-selection), because women dispose of more of the earned income than do men in all these areas. Women are great consumers and it is profitable to serve them – even when they are spending down five thousand years of accumulated cultural and genetic capital. Postwar jews immigrating to the United states attacked and took over the academy and media just as they had used the pulpit in the ancient era, and the printing press in the prior era, to spread their second great lie of pseudoscience in every field of human social order.

    The reason being quite simple: consumption of the commons (predation on the weak.) Jews continued their parasitism and non-production of commons (which is why they could not hold Judea) by expanding into every field where parasitism, propaganda, pseudoscience, and deceit were possible (partly the result of denial of property). This is not a conspiracy as much as the combination of genetic superiority at verbalism, genetic bias toward the parasitic strategies and separatism, rational self interest, and cultural training duplicity provided by talmudic study and jewish history.

    So armed with this knowledge how do we reverse the century of propaganda, lies, and pseudoscience of the alliance between the jews, women and minorities, and return the west its lost confidence, and restore the civilization’s strategy of truth+commons?

    By stating in rational and scientific terms the reason for the west’s rapid success in the ancient and modern periods, despite its many disadvantages. The west practiced aristocratic egalitarianism (a form of eugenics at scale), but this strategy was never written down, only handed down.

    I’m writing it down. Forever. Truth was enough to create the west, and it is enough to restore the west.

  8. Dear Sr Bardi

    I disagree with your assumption that only humans and bees have a language. The languages of hese two species are just the ones we are able to decipher as humans. There is a lot of evidence that whales, especially orcas and delphines, also have languages. We as human are only not able to decipher them until today. Hopefully in the future we are also able to listen to them and understand what they have to say to us before we extinct them like a lot of other species.

    With best regards

  9. A good point, Volker, and I confess I haven't followed the question of the "language" of dolphins and whales since when it was raised up, i think, in the 1970s. Many social animals have some forms of language; but I think that the ability of using it at a certain level of complexity rests only with humans and bees. But there are many things we don't know



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)