A weekly-ish newsletter about seeing clearly in an age of reality distortion — e.g. misinformation, perception control, superhuman manipulation, self-delusion, and the collapse of our information ecosystem.
In this issue: a guidebook to the big questions and themes RDF° will explore.
Salvador Dali, 1968
THE INFORMATION ECOSPHERE
The Doomsday Clock just ticked. It stands 100 seconds to midnight.
"The existential dangers of nuclear war and climate change have been compounded by a new threat multiplier, the corruption of the information ecosphere," per the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
The villain and hero of this story is us.
The corruption is more than just misinformation. Misinfo is just one piece of the larger phenomenon of reality distortion — the warping of our perceived reality and behavior.
In the coming issues of RDF°, we’ll be zooming out and examining our information ecosystem at the layers of media, commerce, platforms, institutions, culture, and cognition. (1)
We will be tackling three big questions:
How might we slow down the flywheel of reality distortion?
How might we build a culture of information stewardship, of caring for the health of our information ecosystem?
How might we, as individuals, be less susceptible to reality distortion and see more clearly?
As we dive into these questions, expect to see several recurring themes. Starting at the top of the model, where fast-changing layers spin hot, and working our way down to the core:
The information ecology—the content, the transmission, and us. We have all become media creators, and therefore proponents of information and misinformation.
Everyone transmits misinformation. But some are worse than others. There are a small number of super-spreaders (et tu, Woody Harrelson? Good actor on the silver screen, bad actor on Instagram). And an even smaller number of actors organizing distortion campaigns. How might we disarm them?
The Great Blurring
Online, everything is blurring together. Fact and opinion. Expert and non-experts. Ads and content. Humans and bots. News and entertainment. (Country and Rap). And more of it! We’re drowning in words, leading to confusion and censorship through noise. How might we make sense of complicated issues (like, say, a pandemic) in this environment?
The economy of reality distortion. The broken incentives — money, reputation, power — that fuel the reality distortion field.
How might we make misinformation less lucrative?
The 12th law of Reality Distortion: If misinformation is more profitable than information, we’re f*d.
How might we make attention harvesting less lucrative?
The 8th law of Reality Distortion°: The higher the bounty on your attention, the more violent the bounty hunter’s chase.
How might we finance trustworthy information?
Not just news, but data, direct-from-the-expert-information, and verification.
Social Media, email, SMS, Search, TV, Cable, Radio, print, and soon AR, VR, and whatever else is around the corner.
We’re better at building and shipping stuff than anticipating how it may go wrong, despite the best efforts of sci-fi authors. How might we — not just companies, but the public — do better?
Amusing Ourselves to Death
TV turns everything into entertainment, argued Neil Postman in his seminal Amusing Ourselves to Death. Everything from the news to Sunday-morning mass became theater. The same can be said of YouTube and social media and COVID-19 press briefings and Slack. Can we solve existential crises (e.g. pandemic, nuclear war, climate change) while being entertained?
What’s the line between the ordinary, run-of-the-mill manipulation that everyone does daily, and superhuman manipulation, aided by technology, big data, and AI?
The network of formal and informal bodies that govern us. Be they government, corporations, NGOs, military, non-profits, social, or educational institutions.
Freedom of Thought
Could digital media platforms one day be sued for violating our Freedom of Thought? Freedom of thought, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, includes the right to keep our thoughts private, and to not have them surveilled, controlled, or manipulated. What was purely science fiction is now science near-future.
Many industries — science, construction, medicine, airline safety — have a process of verification. A network of institutions, processes, and checks and balances ensure we converge to “the right answer” over time. There are still mistakes and bad actors, but the system weeds them out eventually. How might our public information ecosystem — journalism + social media — similarly converge toward the right answer?
The beliefs, norms, and values ordering our collective life.
Truth is vulnerable. And needs to be protected.
I fear that our culture is a harsh environment for truth. (2)
We don’t have a culture dedicated to information stewardship — the consideration of the health of others, and the health of the ecosphere, when we speak.
If we did, many of the big issues higher up the stack would become small. If The Three Gatekeepers were a norm and not an exception- would social media platforms have to lift a finger to combat misinformation?
Culture changes slowly. Given our potpourri of existential crises we need to get cracking.
Our brains, which evolved in a different ecosphere than today’s, don’t always serve us well.
We are terrible at reading minds. We’re terrible at reading our own minds, let alone someone close to us, say, a spouse (unrelated: it’s my ninth anniversary today). Yet reading the beliefs and intentions of people we don’t even know forms the basis of much of our discourse and journalism. Recent neuroscience shows our mental model of how other people behave, our Theory of Mind, is tragically flawed and the root source of many of our personal and collective troubles.
We are easily nudged, if not manipulated. Brain exploits — motivated reasoning, cognitive biases, being steered by language — are used not just by third parties, but by us on us. Self-delusion runs deep.
Researching Our Own Experience
Brain exploits work as our free will is far more — far, far, far more — limited than we think, if not non-existent, as recent neuroscience shows. So why is it that we behave and react as we do? Science can give us an intellectual understanding, but not an experiential understanding. How might we each observe and be aware of our own individual experience, and debug ourselves?
We’ll be discussing these themes and more in the weeks to come.
Other themes you’d like to see explored in a future issue? Hit the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(1) this model is adapted from Stewart Brand’s pace layering model, but there’s no one way to picture the ecosphere, and certainly no right way. The map is not the territory.
(2) h/t Tom Chatfield / Fake News
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Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible. — H.H. the Dalai Lama XIV
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