The Virtues and Vices of Networks
Networks have a lot of virtues. Your personal neural net allows you to think. The Internet allows you to enjoy an astonishing array services and communications. Networks of fabric clothe you. Networks of roads and airports enable fast, cheap travel.
I could go on but you get the idea.
On the other hand, networks can also cause problems: sometimes fatal ones. In fact, they are largely responsible for the “culture wars” (which I think are more accurately defined as “reality wars”) causing widespread social conflict to the point of weakening or even destroying democracies.
The Problem with Intelligence
When the network of your brain meets the Internet, we get some terrific things… and some downright dangerous ones.
Jeff Hawkins, the author of A Thousand Brains, explains why this happens. It boils down to language, especially written language.
Our brains can believe stuff that isn’t true. This is especially the case when we’re talking about things that we haven’t directly experienced. After all, mammals’ brains were originally evolved to make sense of their own experiences. Only via language are we humans able to communicate the details of our experience to others.
This is a powerful tool for survival. Imagine our ancestors being able to tell one another in detail about where the tree with the ripest fruit is, about which times of day they could avoid the lions stalking prey at the river bank, or about the best ways to craft a bow and arrows.
No doubt humans have always used language to lie, as well. But lying to others when in a small nomadic tribe will typically be a limited affair, affecting small groups of people who know one another well and have shared most of the same experiences.
These days it’s a different story. Lies can be quickly shared with millions of people who have little ability to verify the facts as presented. This can lead to widespread belief in fabrications, flawed understandings, and convoluted conspiracy theories.
The Truth of Pocket Pink Pachyderms
Let’s say you’ve read on some blog that there is a species of salmon-colored elephants you can hold in the palm of your hand. “Really?” you think. “Too weird!”
The blog goes into detail about how some elephant experts spliced the DNA from Borneo pygmy elephants with the modified RNA of pot-bellied pigs, and how there are rich women in Indonesia who keep them in jewel-adorned bird cages as status symbols.
“Huh,” you think. “That seems way too detailed to be bogus.”
So you Google it and sure enough there’s a YouTube personality telling you they have a good friend who owns one of the tiny elephants and just adores it.
Yes, there’s a fact-checking website that says the tiny elephants are a hoax, but you don’t believe such websites because they’re all controlled by the mainstream media. You never believe anything from the MSM. You believe in real people on the Internet.
Speaking of which, you found another YouTuber who shares your views on many issues and says he personally saw one of the tiny pink elephants. He even shows a video of one of them (though another YouTube watcher claims the creature is just a newly born aardvark, a claim that sounds like sheer sour grapes to you).
Pretty soon you’re part of a private social media channel where people discuss the nefarious black market trade in these adorable creatures. Yet governments are doing nothing to stop this trade. Why not? There must be an international cover up!
You have not personally seen the exquisite but vulnerable salmon-colored elephants in the flesh, but some people you know strongly believe in “pocket pachyderm” rights and are lobbying to make them legal service animals they can bring on airplanes.
This Is Your Brain on Memes
The pocket pink elephant is just an example of how memes get started and spread. Memes are ideas that spread from from brain to brain much as viruses spread from body to body. That is, they spread quickly, sometimes even exponentially, in groups that are susceptible to them.
Memes carry cultural ideas, but sometimes these ideas are based on false premises. That’s where the trouble lies. Hawkins writes, “On its own, a brain will inexorably move toward more and more accurate models of the world. But this process is thwarted, on a global scale, by viral false beliefs.”
Dangerously Different Realities
We’ve already witnessed some of the dangers this brings. The events of January 6th were largely the result of passionate people believing that there was massive fraud during the 2020 presidential election despite an absence of evidence of the sort that could convince judges that those claims were legitimate enough to be worth investigating.
Although most Americans didn’t believe in the so-called Big Lie, millions did. This conflict of beliefs among people–who have no personal experiences of events and yet form strong opinions on whether or not those events occurred–is a danger to civil society. And, it allows politicians to play on those beliefs in order to maintain and strengthen political power, even if they themselves don’t truly hold those beliefs.
After all, pols can use the strategy of false beliefs to garner more votes, more campaign funding, and greater support for their agendas. This becomes a negative feedback loop in which false beliefs provide support for politicians and other stakeholders (for example, media outlets that sell advertising), who in turn reinforce those beliefs.
Then these beliefs become so widely shared that certain voters demand their leaders express those beliefs. And on it goes, a vicious cycle of belief in things that never happened and yet must be voiced if one wishes to continue to be viewed as a loyal member of a given group.
Networks and New Technologies
This problem is built into the nature of human language and cognition. But it is magnified by the Internet and other networks (e.g., television and radio).
Unless we address this dynamic, things are only going to get worse thanks to generative AI. Those technologies will make it ever easier to for people to mislead others as AI-fabricated photos, videos and audio to become pervasive.
We are, after all, designed to believe our eyes and ears. When we get ever more high quality video and audio fabrications spread over the global network, our reality wars may further intensify.
So, What Are You Gonna Do?
How do we avoid these reality wars? That’s among the most important questions of our age. Although I don’t hold the answers, here are some ideas to think about:
- Ensure that all fact-checking organizations cite their sources, that assessments are reviewed by balanced editorial committees, and that the public can easily review methodologies and, where possible, sources. These systems can’t and won’t appease every fact-denier that comes along, but they help demonstrate the legitimacy of their analyses.
- Use technologies such as blockchain to corroborate the authenticity of media sources. This remains difficult to do well, and associations between blockchain technologies and the vagaries of cryptocurrencies do not endear blockchains to the public at large. But over time, blockchains may serve useful role here.
- Require that all products of generative AI technologies contain impossible or very difficult to remove identifiers that they are fabrications. And develop fake-spotting technologies that are easily used by anyone.
- Require social media companies to ensure everyone gets at least a chance at a balanced perspective by modifying their link recommendation engines.
- Require that this topic of how the mind works amid networks to be covered in schools as one major component of digital literacy.
- Continue to use popular media to educate people about the dangers involved. Movies and documentaries can ultimately make people more aware of how false narratives and fake news works.
Seeing Things Differently
I’m not suggesting that everyone can or should hold the same positions on political or social issues. To a large degree, people can share most of the same realities and yet hold contrary opinions about them.
In fact, competing points of view are essential to the health of a working democracy.
But we need to at least agree on the fundamental facts themselves when it comes to major issues. From there, we can debate the significance of those facts and how they should addressed.
We also need to forge updated cultural attitudes toward politicians. Yes, it’s a trope that politicians lie. But in our current age, lies are more dangerous than ever before. We need to hold them to a higher standard of honesty than in the past. In fact, the 2022 mid-term elections in the United States suggests that this may be happening.
Networks are a fundamental reality, and the Internet is going nowhere barring some global catastrophe. We’ve got to figure out how to use it more wisely. Otherwise, it’ll tear us apart rather than knit us together.
Featured image from Grandjean, Martin (2014). "La connaissance est un réseau". Les Cahiers du Numérique 10 (3): 37-54. DOI:10.3166/LCN.10.3.37-54. Graph representing the metadata of thousands of archive documents. Wikipedia.