Technology is Not Values Neutral: Ending the Reign of Nihilistic Design
We fail to take tech seriously when we do not grasp its full impact on humans | Jun 26, 2022 | 25 Min Read
The COVID-19 pandemic created conditions that have been frequently compared to wartime. With wars come propaganda, and for good reason. When it comes to national security, modern governments have long-standing practices for complex information campaigns that integrate academia, media, and government agencies. When widespread acceptance of certain ideas literally means the difference between life and death, it is hard to argue against the use of propaganda. But public health campaigns in the U.S. and elsewhere are creating unintended negative side effects. In the U.S., polarization and national disunity have increased, even when facing a common “enemy.”
Today, propaganda intended to unify citizens toward the public good is failing. No matter the cause or issue—no matter the urgency of winning the war of ideas—the basic technologies that structure our communication now make success impossible. Digital technologies as currently designed ensure that all counter responses have the same potential for virality. Social media business models based on capturing attention incentivize polarization, which means that the harder certain messages are pushed, the greater the polarization that results. Meanwhile, every post to social media only enriches the technologists who benefit from endless and escalating culture wars. The technologist acts as a parasitic non-combatant, controlling the battlefield to assure their own profits, which has meant rigging it against education and civic discourse.
Old arguments in favor of propaganda—and the practices they imply—are being proven wrong in real time. Instead of winning the war of ideas, state-backed public relations campaigns are becoming embroiled in endless and escalating information warfare.
The mishandling of major information campaigns leads to a loss of legitimate authority. Cynical citizens no longer take public officials at their word. People will largely obey dictated norms to avoid social sanction, even while knowing they cannot trust fully in what they are being told to do. In that psychological and cultural condition, “unofficial” propaganda of all kinds will flourish to fill the vacuum of legitimate authority.
To put things in perspective it is necessary to consider the history of our longstanding systems of information management, public relations, and propaganda. In this, the third part in our series on propaganda, we demonstrate that 21st-century communications technologies make obsolete the arguments that have historically justified ideas about the effectiveness and value of centralized public relations and propaganda campaigns. This has major implications for how we understand the future of open societies, especially the design of their digital infrastructures for education and information.
In the late 1930s, the phrase “It’s all propaganda, anyway” became a kind of national mantra for Americans. The propaganda campaigns for World War I were unprecedented in their size, complexity, and effectiveness. After the end of the war, when the soldiers came home, many citizens came to the realization that they had been subject to coercive and deceitful propaganda at the hands of their own democratic government. In response, public intellectuals and politicians of all stripes began to critique domestic propaganda openly.
This culminated in the creation of the Institute for Propaganda Analysis (IPA). Between 1937 and 1942, the IPA served as the core of a national focus on analytical and educational remedies for the problem of propaganda. Headquartered in New York, with nationwide reach, their work garnered support from leading academics, politicians, and philanthropists. Their publications were widely read and distributed. They sought to provide educational materials to allow citizens to detect and critique propaganda. The IPA also served as a platform for public discussion about the dangers and deceptions of propaganda in advertising, government, and the media.
In retrospect these efforts, while spirited, appear to have been naive. The IPA was shut down just as the Nazi propaganda machine was kicking into gear. Simple “content-insensitive detection formula” like the checklist approach reprinted above are logical and useful. But they came to be seen as too detached a stance. The neutrality of the approach taken by the IPA became problematic when actual fascists were in the streets of American cities, marching in parades and spreading Hitler’s propaganda. Sometimes calling a fascist a fascist is necessary, even if it induces hate and fear.
Counter-offensives in propaganda were needed, and as discussed in the second paper of this series, the war mobilization efforts for World War II mark another watershed in the history of propaganda. The IPA was arguing against propaganda when all the strongest arguments in favor of rebooting American propaganda efforts were gaining traction. The position of the IPA became untenable, they became subject to attack and slander, accused of aiding the enemy. But why?
Justifications for the use of modern propaganda can be found in the political science of the late 19th century that grappled with the implications of Darwin and Freud. This period of social theory marks the beginning of the “eclipse of rationalism.” Intellectuals and politicians would soon no longer believe that citizens of democracies could simply be understood as naturally rational, good, and self-possessed.
The influential English activist and writer Graham Wallas was among the first to integrate Freudian psychology with political philosophy. He argued that “the empirical art of politics consists largely in the creation of opinion by the deliberate exploitation of subconscious non-rational inference.” The famous American journalist and political commentator, Walter Lippman, was heavily influenced by Wallas, and basically agreed with his theories about the formation of public opinion.
French polymath Gustave Le Bon’s widely read book, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, argued that under modern conditions of mass communication and urbanization the “unconscious actions of crowds” replaced the “conscious actions of individuals.” Le Bon’s work would directly contribute to the birth of “crowd psychology,” which developed the idea among politicians and academics that individuals are highly suggestable, irrational, and generally opposed to discussion or nuance.
The common refrain of pro-propaganda thinkers in the early 20th century was that individuals and crowds are fundamentally irrational. Anything resembling mass communication, therefore, should be implemented in light of “realistic” views of human nature. The general conclusion is that there is no choice but to engage in sloganeering, deploy simplistic rhetoric and use provocative images. Propagandistic communication is the only way to deal with the irrational modern crowd; it is the only way to approach governance and public opinion in a modern urban society under conditions of broadcast communication (radio, TV). And more to the point: if our side does not use these means, the other side will.
Some in the debate, like philosopher John Dewey, continued to take a hard line against what he identified as “the new paternalism” of so-called “democratic propaganda.” Dewey was interested in wholesale, nationwide changes to educational configurations, within both the press and schools, with the aim of producing a truly open and deliberative public sphere. For Dewey, the relation between democracy and education was tight knit. Abandoning education in favor of propaganda is not something done to “save democracy”—it is something done to undermine democracy. Instead, Dewey suggested that wholesale upgrades to all the various institutions of education are required to allow democratic practices to keep pace with technology and social change.
Dewey’s arguments were not regarded as scientific or realistic by the likes of Walter Lippman. Instead, they were viewed as merely the lamentations of a disgruntled idealist and educator. The argument goes as follows: given the nature of human psychology, the Nazis win unless we (the “good guys”) beat their propaganda with better propaganda, that is both more effective and sends a democratic message. Other progressives likewise stood in favor of using propaganda to direct the American public in directions they deemed more ethical. This was to be, once again, propaganda for democracy in a time of crisis. Dewey would reply that “propaganda for democracy” was an oxymoron.
Despite the likes of Dewey, the IPA was outgunned—the argument was over. Debates about protecting Americans from their own propaganda would not begin again until after the war. The result this time was the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which disallowed U.S. government agencies from targeting Americans with materials officially categorized as propaganda. The Obama administration rolled back many of these protections in 2012, as part of the war on terror. In the context of a global pandemic, arguments for restraint in the use of propaganda fall on deaf ears. But what happens when governments pull the trigger on information campaigns targeting their own people? With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see what occurred in the lead up to World War I, and the outcome when the full weight of government machinery gets behind a domestic propaganda campaign.
Beyond the arguments, the First World War provided undeniable evidence that propaganda worked. Indeed, the IPA was responding specifically to the frightening successes of World War I propaganda, which was used by all sides to great effect. The entire world, but in particular the U.S., England, and Germany, were inundated with truly unprecedented industrial-scale modern propaganda. This would happen again with even greater volume, scope, and innovation in the lead-up to World War II. In the wake of the two world wars, the Cold War set the conditions for perpetual information warfare on a planetary scale.
One of the British military’s earliest actions upon entering the war was to limit and surveil German communications to America. Britain held control of the worldwide telegraph network. Within hours of declaring war, the Royal Navy dispatched a cable-laying ship, the CS Alert, to the English Channel to find and cut German cables. Once all German cables were cut there was no other way to send transatlantic telegraphs except through British-controlled infrastructure. Among other benefits, this allowed British intelligence agencies to orchestrate a one-sided propaganda campaign against American neutrality, targeting American civilians.
The successes of British propaganda, as well as the enthusiasm of progressives in Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet, led to the creation of the Committee on Public Information. This was the first large-scale propaganda agency ever created by the U.S. government, and it has set the schema for the use of propaganda in democracies to this day. The scope of the committee’s work was immense and touched nearly every aspect of every citizen’s life—and that was just their domestic effort. The CPI had representatives on nearly every continent, even if much of their organizational attention was focused on “holding fast the inner lines” at home.
During the war mobilization effort, the CPI recruited nearly all the country’s schoolteachers, rural preachers, publishers, academics, business leaders, and advertising companies. Once the propaganda got rolling, any person or organization not participating was seen as deeply problematic. Questioning the propaganda could eventually get you blacklisted by the government and zealous fellow citizens. Conversations between families and friends turned into interrogations about who believed the propaganda the most. Vigilante groups emerged, empowered by propaganda, who took it upon themselves to enforce support in their towns. People were tarred and feathered; at least one man was killed by hanging.
Radio, TV, movies, newspapers, posters, books, parades, large public events, speeches, and door-to-door canvassing were all used to sway the public mind. The flow of information orchestrated by the CPI was massive and relentless. Propaganda of this size, scope, and complexity had never been undertaken before. The combined force of British and US information campaigns is thought by some historians to have been the determining factor in Allied victory.
Much of it was not pretty. Misinformation campaigns involved fake German war crimes that never occurred. This made for a near-total villainization of the evil German “Hun.” At the same time, misrepresentations of the realities of trench warfare and censorship of demoralizing aspects of the war kept the American public sheltered from its true horrors. It would be these kinds of propaganda that resulted in “whiplash” after the war, when the veil of government-mandated deception dropped.
The CPI was headed up by self-described “newspaper man” and former progressive muckraker, George Creel. He described his work for the CPI in an autobiographical book, How We Advertised America. The title says it all. Creel was a civilian, without military training in propaganda. He innovated rapidly, at scale, using the CPI to organize collaborations between all major advertising agencies, newspapers, as well as artists, academics, and public speakers.
In particular, the CPI changed the nature of how “news” worked. The press has never returned to its prior state. Creel innovated in use of mass-produced information as a means of keeping the press on their heels, while also avoiding overt censorship with the use of information overload. As the centralized hub of government information about the war, the CPI delivered a daily deluge of facts, figures, and stories. Here we find the first institutionalization of “news handouts” from government to the media. Resentful journalists found themselves in a new position of total dependence on government handouts. Information was provided by press secretaries and agency heads with expertise in public relations.
“For five years there has been no free play of public opinion in the world. Confronted by the inexorable necessities of war, governments conscripted public opinion as they conscripted men and money and materials. Having conscripted it, they dealt with it as they dealt with other raw recruits. They mobilized it…. They goose-stepped it. They taught it to stand at attention and salute…. Its ultimate function was to suppress all information that Government wishes to suppress for any reason whatsoever.”
— Frank I. Cobb, Editor, New York World, December 31, 1919.
Creel often bragged that he had to do very little censorship because the newspapers took it upon themselves to do so. He was right. News organizations jumped at the opportunity to contribute to the war effort. They adapted to the control of information and took pride in doing their part. They were overzealous at times, also serving their underlying goals of attracting attention and gaining subscriptions. Most of the worst lies and fake news reports produced during the war in American papers were the result of journalists’ and editors’ enthusiasm, as opposed to the direct intervention of the government.
It is important to note that in the U.S., it is progressives, liberals, and left-leaning political parties that have built the largest and most sustained propaganda efforts. The CPI, the Committee for National Morale, and Eisenhower’s psychological warfare during the Cold War are all examples of progressive or liberal administrations deploying global vertical propaganda. Progressive muckraking journalists—who exposed corruption and fought for the causes of socialism, feminism, and social justice—were drawn to the CPI in large numbers. They saw the new need for propaganda as an opportunity to push through adjacent public health campaigns. This included using propaganda to speed the enculturation of large swaths of new immigrants into the American democratic ethos. Intellectuals and progressives at the time understood that social science might provide the possibility of benevolent, democratic social engineering. The CPI was the first vehicle large enough to accomplish these ends.
The CPI worked better than anyone had expected. This greatly worried some, like Dewey and the members of the IPA. It left others enamored with its power and convinced of the necessity of mass persuasion. The industry of public relations emerged from the work of those who embraced these wartime revelations.
The father of the field of public relations, Edward Bernays, was important to the American government’s propaganda operations during both world wars and after. He was also deeply influential in American advertising, which was itself rapidly expanded and empowered during the war mobilization efforts. Edward Bernays believed that a new paradigm of applied social science had just been proven effective by the CPI: public relations, the most advanced form of advertising. Bernays had an outsized impact on American advertising and government PR. He would try to give propaganda a good name, even as he conducted all his business under the banner of “public relations counsel.”
For Bernays, the necessity of engineering consensus and orchestrating public opinion had already been demonstrated. On the basis of the evidence of recent history—and along with most of those he influenced—he assumed the following claims:
The quotes copied here from one of Bernays’ most famous and widely read books speak for themselves. These are not critiquing propaganda. They are not statements made by a member of some fascist regime. They are from the pen of the founder of public relations. His argument is that propaganda is an essential aspect of open societies, central to the functioning of modern democratic governance and free market capitalism.
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our county (p. 37).
We have voluntarily agreed to let an invisible government sift the data and high-spot the outstanding issues so that our field of choice shall be narrowed to practical proportions…. Society consents to having its choice narrowed to ideas and objects brought to its attention through propaganda of all kinds (p. pp 38-39).
As civilization has become more complex, and as the need for invisible government has been increasingly demonstrated, the technical means have been invented and developed by which opinion may be regimented (p. 39-40).
The minority has discovered a powerful help in influencing majorities. It has been found possible to so mold the mind of the masses that they will throw newly gained strength in the desired direction. In the present structure of society, this practice is inevitable (p. 47).
It was, of course, the astounding success of propaganda during the [first world] war that opened the eyes of the intelligent few in all departments of life to the possibilities of regimenting the public mind (p. 54).
Clearly it is the intelligent minority which needs to make use of propaganda continuously and systematically. Only through the active energy of the intelligent few can the public at large become aware of and act on new ideas (p. 57).
The invisible government tends to be concentrated in the hands of the few because of the expense of manipulating the social machinery which controls the opinions and habits of the masses….The new profession of public relations has grown up because of the increasing complexity of modern life and the consequent necessity for making the actions of one part of the public understandable to other sections of the public. It is due, too, to the increasing dependence of organized power on all sorts of public opinion (pp. 63-64).
At the onset of the Cold War, the stage was set for a permanent mobilization of large-scale public relations on the part of all major interest groups, especially government and industry. Alliances were formed between various branches of business, government, and advertising to create pockets of activity in which value could be drawn from the direct manipulation of public opinion. These areas included food, politics, foreign policy, and medicine. The “scope creep” of these endeavors followed the penetration of media into the everyday lives of citizens. In particular, the alignments between the healthcare industry, government agencies, and major media outlets created the framework for modern “post-war” public health campaigns. The most famous campaign of the era was developed around the polio vaccine.
The large-scale public health campaign for the polio vaccine deployed most of the centralized information control apparatus pioneered by the CPI and its offspring. It was successful in unifying the country and stopping the spread of polio. The CPI itself, as already discussed, unified the country in preparation for the First World War faster and more powerfully than expected. The propaganda for World War II also brought the U.S. together into operational unity, rather than intractable division, despite the spread of fascism on American soil at the start of the war. Cold War propaganda likewise worked at scale to facilitate social coordination at the national level.
Today, the same kind of propaganda campaigns are starting to backfire. Instead of consensus, they are resulting in ideological polarization and arms races in the field of information warfare. It appears that some digital information environments make obsolete propaganda based on broadcast and vertical centralization.
For decades now, the emergence of digital technologies has been undermining the way propaganda and public relations have traditionally been justified and operationalized. Several factors converge to weaken both the efficacy and the legitimacy of legacy approaches to engineering consensus.
Perhaps the most obvious is that the barrier to participation in information warfare has been drastically lowered. In the quote above, Bernays suggests that the strings of public opinion are pulled by an intelligent few, in part because of how resource-intensive it is to influence public opinion at scale. Today, this is no longer the case. Organically produced horizontal propaganda—such as a video shot from a phone, edited for effect, and uploaded to social media—can be far more effective than a prime-time multi-million-dollar TV special. The battleground of the media has changed significantly.
Social media sites curate content using algorithms that optimize for virality and seek to keep eyes on site. Attention drives ad revenues, so anything that arrests attention is valued. This business model of attention capture results in algorithms that curate content based on qualities that make them likely to prioritize the delivery of propaganda, such as catchiness, emotional intensity, and confirmation of held beliefs. The devastating result is that information warfare is driven inadvertently by the business models of the companies that produce and profit from our basic social technologies.
The designs of social media companies have driven the evolution of a landscape characterized by diverse and multiplying guerilla warfare campaigns. These organic, decentralized campaigns cannot be defeated by the vertical centralized responses familiar to our legacy institutions—at least not without major algorithmically enabled censorship. However, “big tech censorship” is limited by virtue of its platform-specific nature and does not eliminate what was censored wholesale from the Internet. Indeed, single platform censorship often creates a countercurrent of alternative platforms, each with their own stance on what constitutes best use of the power of algorithmic curation. As it stands today, millions of people in the West can end up viewing content that amounts to powerful propaganda, yet which was created by amateurs, with little or no funding and technical support.
These lower barriers to entry create conditions in which arms races can unfold. A vertical overt propaganda campaign—like a public health push—now creates predictable reactionary counter-propaganda that ultimately creates more confusion than consensus. Innovations in information warfare are taking place in dorm rooms or someone’s mom’s basement, as well as within intelligence agencies, troll farms, and the high-rise offices of PR firms.
This situation is leading some authorities to adopt a “cut the transatlantic cables” approach. In the recent Zambian election large swaths of the Internet were simply turned off, leaving only the methods of broadcast TV and radio. There are ways to make the Internet function in service of centralized vertical overt propaganda, as has been achieved in China. The direction of social media censorship in the U.S. appears to be leading in the direction of making the U.S. Internet a great deal more like the “Chinese Internet,” which is subject to strict information controls and censorship, and where algorithms sift metadata to generate personal “social credit scores.”
At the same time, classic PR approaches that involve “useful” simplifications, facts out of context, occlusions of information—the massaging of public data in general—have become fundamentally problematic. Before the Internet, the context was broadcast TV and a finite set of newspapers and radio stations, which could repeat the same statistics. There was nowhere else for the vast majority of people to look for different numbers. Things have changed. Everyday people now have direct access to more data than they could ever consume. Even if they never look for it, they know it is there. They are aware that others claim to be deep in whole other worlds of “facts.” In the comments under articles on social media, the “alternative facts” are often only a click away, and everyone knows it.
Unless such options are closed the epistemic backdoor is always open. Now as never before, people can switch allegiance to an alternative information campaign. To achieve similar ends prior to the age of the Internet, you would have had to go to the USSR to really see the alternative facts during the Cold War, or at least read contraband books. You would have had to be a research scientist, with special access, to have any sense at all that there may have been more complexity to the polio vaccine’s success story. The idea that “alternative numbers and explanations” exist—that there is a lively heterodox view—was simply not a part of prior experiences of domestic propaganda. Now the idea that there are alternative facts is built into the polarity and confusion of post-truth experience, which is the very nature of propaganda on the Internet. Now, the complexity is evident for all to see.
And finally, the digital world has changed the safe assumptions that can be made about people, and how they think and behave. Conditions of socialization, educational systems, and family structures have been wrapping around the affordances of digital technologies. Attention spans are shortening, mental illness is increasing, and screen time is fast becoming how most people spend most of their time. This is leading individuals to develop psychological dispositions that weaken the effectiveness of some forms of propaganda, while at the same time making them vulnerable to others. Campaign results become less predictable; information operations that used to be routine have become complex.
Some of the historical arguments that people are irrational, and especially in crowds, still hold true. However, when a person or crowd is pushed beyond a certain point of irrationality and unreasonableness, they become impossible to control without the use of force. We are starting to drive ourselves crazy, literally, from the overuse of propagandistic communication.
Computational propaganda unfolds in the context of 24/7 screen access, through which a great deal of identity formation now takes place. With this amount of time and investment in digital media that is overrun with manipulative interactions, limbic hijacking can turn to limbic overload. Seeing ten propaganda billboards on your way to work is significantly different from engaging with 30 micro-targeted HD video ads on your way to work, many of them deeply emotionally manipulative and conceptually complex.
The sheer weight of exposure to manipulative information results in the dysregulation of emotional response and cognitive ability. The fog of information war sets in. We are being driven into endless culture war by the very structure of our communications platforms.
Technological capacity for information transmission—the speed and intensity of the propagation of ideas (which is the origin of the term propaganda etymologically)—has increased exponentially since the invention of the printing press. Now, we find ourselves at the point of tipping critical limits in the human nervous system toward collapse. We have discussed elsewhere the relationship between the mental health crisis and transformations in digital technologies, and how socialization and educational environments in the digital domain are subject to systematically distorted forms of communication. The result is fragmentation and incapacitation rather than unification and mobilization.
Historically, domestic vertical propaganda aimed to leverage the “irrational” in the interest of some collective goal of national significance. Today it is yielding the opposite. Citizens are beginning to suffer the “side effects” of too much propaganda, of too much intensity, over too much time, from too many sides. Chaos rather than order is resulting from what appear to be earnest attempts by some to instill order. The default end game is oppression, which becomes inevitable when techniques of mass persuasion fail.
The so-called “culture war” is predicated on the following accelerating trends in the emerging communications technologies. These trends reflect an information ecosystem optimized for harvesting data and manipulating users for the purposes of advertising.
— Zachary Stein, Disarm the Pedagogical Weaponry: Make Education Not Culture War. (2021).
As digital technology enabled new forms of communication, new kinds of minds and communities also emerged. The arguments in favor of classic, vertical propaganda were not abandoned or updated, but instead simply transferred into these new contexts. The failure of these methods of social control in current conditions will result in foreclosing on futures for open societies.
Centralized propaganda distributed via broadcast media was effective as a means of social control for the better part of a century. However, as the basic technologies underpinning information campaigns changed, legacy approaches began to create unexpected results. As we discuss in a previous Consilience Paper, digital media allows “counter-expert discourses” to emerge that can outflank broadcast channels, creating confusion and division precisely where the intention was to create clarity and unity. To the extent that the expert discourse is presented propagandistically, each attempt to engineer consensus will result in escalating countermeasures that create dissensus. If this dynamic continues—particularly in the context of increasing information overload—populations will become ever more ungovernable by means of information and shared decision-making.
If we want a future in which non-authoritarian forms of social organization remain viable, it is critical to understand clearly the implications of a global, distributed arms race in propaganda. In times of crisis and peace, humanity now requires some new form of mass communication to emerge that enables large-scale social cooperation. This must emerge from within the possibilities of our digital information infrastructures. Twenty-first century digital democracies cannot run on public relations and propaganda. Educational campaigns of profound size, scope, and depth are possible, which can tip the balance in favor of learning over manipulation.
The same conditions that undermine classic arguments for propaganda support long-standing arguments in favor of a truly educational democracy. The arguments made by those like John Dewey seemed naive in the context of broadcast, print, and airtight channels of information control. With the emergence of the Internet, however, there was a sense that something new was possible. Yet arguments in favor of propaganda die hard. Legacy structures of information control have dominated the first decades of the Internet. The evidence suggests that this situation must change.
Lower barriers to entry can be leveraged by platforms that enable the self-organization of public opinion. Forms of social media could be designed that use AI to organize the collective knowledge being produced, compiling vast stores of crowed-sourced information in real time, and then making it searchable and useful for everyone, including public metadata and open-source algorithms. This is different from giving everyone a megaphone and selling advertisements during the cacophony, which is what social media platforms currently do. Civic discourse could have a renaissance during the digital age, but instead the business models of the companies providing the default civic infrastructure disable this possibility.
Likewise, there are unprecedented possibilities for enriching democratic decision-making through use of complex practices involving “public data.” Digital databases, online education, information management tools, and data visualization platforms have all advanced to the point where “it’s too complex” is not a reason to exclude any publicly relevant data from public view. The task is complex, involving technical and ethical challenges, yet fundamental changes to the housing and presentation of public data are necessary. The days are numbered for centralized, vertically controlled public data, allowing for cherry picking, manipulation, and re-framing of “facts” by media and public officials. Insofar as private companies claim that public data should be protected for proprietary reasons, deeper questions must be asked as to why those companies are in a position to hold public sensemaking to ransom.
With everyday citizens empowered by the Internet now seeking and gaining access to databases for themselves, we face a choice. Either drop the pretense of being an open society, close off access, and solidify the gap between “the masses” and the “expert class,” or build the education and information infrastructure necessary to become a more open society. The latter requires widespread upgrades to how we educate populations, build tech that enables collective intelligence, and marshal nation-state level resources towards realizing the best of what is possible when democracies go digital.
Educational campaigns could be made as effective in digital contexts as propaganda campaigns were in broadcast contexts. This requires radically retooling the basic infrastructures that enable our civic communications and engagement. This is still possible as we sway between order and chaos, but the window is closing. We have only a brief moment in history to decide upon the future of open societies.
We fail to take tech seriously when we do not grasp its full impact on humans | Jun 26, 2022 | 25 Min Read
Bad faith communication has become normalized | Feb 23, 2022 | 10 Min Read
Verified facts can be used to support erroneous conclusions | Jan 30, 2022 | 8 Min Read
Some of our most popular technologies are becoming a means of mass coercion that open societies cannot survive | Dec 5, 2021 | 28 Min Read
Agent provocateur translates to “inciting incident” in French. It is used to reference individuals who attempt to persuade another individual or group to partake in a crime or rash behavior or to implicate them in such acts. This is done to defame, delegitimize, or criminalize the target. For example, starting a conflict at a peaceful protest or attempting to implicate a political figure in a crime.
Ideological polarization is generated as a side-effect of content recommendation algorithms optimizing for user engagement and advertising revenues. These algorithms will upregulate content that reinforces existing views and filters out countervailing information because this has been proven to drive time on-site. The result is an increasingly polarized perspective founded on a biased information landscape.
To “cherry pick” when making an argument is to selectively present evidence that supports one’s position or desired outcome, while ignoring or omitting any contradicting evidence.
A general term for collective resources in which every participant of the collective has an equal interest. Prominent examples are air, nature, culture, and the quality of our shared sensemaking basis or information commons.
The cognitive bias of 1) exclusively seeking or recalling evidence in support of one's current beliefs or values, 2) interpreting ambiguous information in favor of one’s beliefs or values, and 3) ignoring any contrary information. This bias is especially strong when the issues in question are particularly important to one's identity.
In science and history, consilience is the principle that evidence from independent, unrelated sources can “converge” on strong conclusions. That is, when multiple sources of evidence are in agreement, the conclusion can be very strong even when none of the individual sources of evidence is significantly so on its own.
While “The Enlightenment” was a specific instantiation of cultural enlightenment in 18th-century Europe, cultural enlightenment is a more general process that has occurred multiple times in history, in many different cultures. When a culture goes through a period of increasing reflectivity on itself it is undergoing cultural enlightenment. This period of reflectivity brings about the awareness required for a culture to reimagine its institutions from a new perspective. Similarly, “The Renaissance” refers to a specific period in Europe while the process of a cultural renaissance has occurred elsewhere. A cultural renaissance is more general than (and may precede) an enlightenment, as it describes a period of renewed interest in a particular topic.
A deep fake is a digitally-altered (via AI) recording of a person for the purpose of political propaganda, sexual objectification, defamation, or parody. They are progressively becoming more indistinguishable from reality to an untrained eye.
Empiricism is a philosophical theory that states that knowledge is derived from sensory experiences and relies heavily on scientific evidence to arrive at a body of truth. English philosopher John Locke proposed that rather than being born with innate ideas or principles, man’s life begins as a “blank slate” and only through his senses is he able to develop his mind and understand the world.
An orientation towards a reality that is neither epistemic nihilism nor epistemic hubris. As opposed to an ethos of knowing, it is an ethos of learning, which The Consilience Project suggests is needed for grappling with the unique challenges of 21st-century sensemaking. This ethos implies curiosity and a motivation to pursue further learning, embracing facts and truth where these are possible to attain, but always remaining open to further learning—refusing to commit to absolutism or fundamentalism.
This form of nihilism is a diffuse and usually subconscious feeling that it is impossible to really know anything, because, for example, “the science is too complex” or “there is fake news everywhere.” Without a shared ability to make sense of the world as a means to inform our choices, we are left with only the game of power. Claims of “truth” are seen as unwarranted or intentional manipulations, as weaponized or not earnestly believed in.
Epistemology is the philosophical study of knowing and the nature of knowledge. It deals with questions such as “how does one know?” and “what is knowing, known, and knowledge?”. Epistemology is considered one of the four main branches of philosophy, along with ethics, logic, and metaphysics.
Derived from a Greek word meaning custom, habit, or character; The set of ideals or customs which lay the foundations around which a group of people coheres. This includes the set of values upon which a culture derives its ethical principles.
A category of risk that denotes the complete and total elimination of humanity or the planet. Example: Earth killer asteroid impacts
Discourse oriented towards mutual understanding and coordinated action, with the result of increasing the faith that participants have in the value of communicating. The goal of good faith communication is not to reach a consensus, but to make it possible for all parties to change positions, learn, and continue productive, ongoing interaction.
Processes that occupy vast expanses of both time and space, defying the more traditional sense of an "object" as a thing that can be singled out. The concept, introduced by Timothy Morton, invites us to conceive of processes that are difficult to measure, always around us, globally distributed and only observed in pieces. Examples include climate change, ocean pollution, the Internet, and global nuclear armaments and related risks.
Information warfare is a primary aspect of fourth- and fifth-generation warfare. It can be thought of as war with bits and memes instead of guns and bombs. Examples of information warfare include psychological operations like disinformation, propaganda, or manufactured media, or non-kinetic interference in an enemy's communication capacity or quality.
Refers to the foundational process of education which underlies and enables societal and cultural cohesion across generations by passing down values, capacities, knowledge, and personality types.
False or misleading information, irrespective of the intent to mislead. Within the category of misinformation, disinformation is a term used to refer to misinformation with intent. In news media, the public generally expects a higher standard for journalistic integrity and editorial safeguards against misinformation; in this context, misinformation is often referred to as “fake news”.
A prevailing school of economic thought that emphasizes the government's role in controlling the supply of money circulating in an economy as the primary determinant of economic growth. This involves central banks using various methods of increasing or decreasing the money supply of their currency (e.g., altering interest rates).
A form of rivalry between nation-states or conflicting groups, by which tactical aims are realized through means other than direct physical violence. Examples include election meddling, blackmailing politicians, or information warfare.
Open societies promote the free exchange of information and public discourse, as well as democratic governance based on the participation of the people in shared choices about their social futures. Unlike the tight control over communications and suppression of dissenting views that characterize closed societies, open societies promote transparent governance and embrace good-faith public scrutiny.
The theory and practice of teaching and learning, and how this process influences, and is influenced by, the social, political, and psychological development of learners.
The ability of an individual or institutional entity to deny knowing about unethical or illegal activities because there is no evidence to the contrary or no such information has been provided.
First coined by philosopher Jürgen Habermas, the term refers to the collective common spaces where people come together to publicly articulate matters of mutual interest for members of society. By extension, the related theory suggests that impartial, representative governance relies on the capacity of the public sphere to facilitate healthy debate.
The word itself is French for rebirth, and this meaning is maintained across its many purposes. The term is commonly used with reference to the European Renaissance, a period of European cultural, artistic, political, and economic renewal following the middle ages. The term can refer to other periods of great social change, such as the Bengal Renaissance (beginning in late 18th century India).
A term proposed by sociologists to characterize emergent properties of social systems after the Second World War. Risk societies are increasingly preoccupied with securing the future against widespread and unpredictable risks. Grappling with these risks differentiate risk societies from modern societies, given these risks are the byproduct of modernity’s scientific, industrial, and economic advances. This preoccupation with risk is stimulating a feedback loop and a series of changes in political, cultural, and technological aspects of society.
Sensationalism is a tactic often used in mass media and journalism in which news stories are explicitly chosen and worded to excite the greatest number of readers or viewers, typically at the expense of accuracy. This may be achieved by exaggeration, omission of facts and information, and/or deliberate obstruction of the truth to spark controversy.
A theory stating that individuals are willing to sacrifice some of their freedom and agree to state authority under certain legal rules, in exchange for the protection of their remaining rights, provided the rest of society adheres to the same rules of engagement. This model of political philosophy originated during the Age of Enlightenment from theorists including, but not limited to John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It was revived in the 20th century by John Rawls and is used as the basis for modern democratic theory.
Autopoiesis from the Greek αὐτo- (auto-) 'self', and ποίησις (poiesis) 'creation, production'—is a term coined in biology that refers to a system’s capability for reproducing and maintaining itself by metabolizing energy to create its own parts, and eventually new emergent components. All living systems are autopoietic. Societal Autopoiesis is an extension of the biological term, making reference to the process by which a society maintains its capacity to perpetuate and adapt while experiencing relative continuity of shared identity.
Used as part of propaganda or advertising campaigns, these are brief, highly-reductive, and definitive-sounding phrases that stop further questioning of ideas. Often used in contexts in which social approval requires unreflective use of the cliché, which can result in confusion at the individual and collective level. Examples include all advertising jingles and catchphrases, and certain political slogans.
A proposition or a state of affairs is impossible to be verified, or proven to be true. A further distinction is that a state of affairs can be unverifiable at this time, for example, due to constraints in our technical capacity, or a state of affairs can be unverifiable in principle, which means that there is no possible way to verify the claim.
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