Human Behavior, Communication, Social Media, Fake News, Milo Yiannopoulos, İnternet Censorship, Propaganda Techniques, Presidential Election, #Metoo, Corporate Media, Tommy Robinson, Twitter, Google, Manufacturing, Facebook, Oil, Alex Jones, Co-Founder, Deception, Humans, Mobile Devices, World, Global, Post-Truth Politics, Echo Chamber, Filter Bubble, Personalized Search, Public Opinion, Personalisation Algorithms, Limbic Systems, Emergent Networks, Entertainment Systems, Upworthy, Roberto Unger, Dmitry Kieselev, Immersive Technologies, Henry Jenkins, Eli Pariser, Adam Curtis, Georges Bataille, James Bridle, Radical Technologies, Online Presence, 2.0 Technologies, Software Systems, Information Processing, Jean Baudrillard, Adam Greenfield

Human Behavior, Communication

Essay: The False Promise of Technology

What do we really know about the digital world we inhabit?

9/12/2019 12:00:00 PM

“New technology has raised the spectre that the machines we’ve invented will eventually replace what elevated humans from the rest of the animal kingdom: our intelligence.” Opinion | indignant_sepoy

What do we really know about the digital world we inhabit?

In reality, however, it seems like we are lost in a sea of information, divided by fundamentalism, simplistic narratives, conspiracy theories, and post-factual politics.Given the libertarian utopianism behind the digital revolution, how did we end up in the era of ‘fake news', algorithmic filters and surveillance capitalism? Is technology itself to blame or our relationship with it?

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Fake WorldsHyperNormalisation, Adam Curtis outlines how an army of technocrats, complacent radicals and tech entrepreneurs have conspired to create an unreal world; one whose comforting details blind us to its inauthenticity. Within this world emerged a constellation of immersive technologies: wielding tools of manipulation in service of cyber-capitalism, as its algorithms trap us in a cesspool of narcissistic oblivion.

Reality is now simulated; synthetic conditions that are generated seem more “real” than the actual experiential act, what cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard called “hyper-reality”.At the heart of this is the notion that our contemporary experience is devoid of equilibrium. Artificial environments of learning, mobile devices, and interface VR or entertainment systems of communication and visual-sound displays have begun to reshape our perceptions and limbic systems in ways we are yet to grasp intelligibly.

Knowledge hasreplacedmanufacturing as the most advanced mode of economic production, and data is the oil that greases our new silicon-fueled economies. New media exemplifies a profound fragmentation with its myriad streams of content, and when compounded with the disorientation of globalisation, has inverted reality into the sphere of the incomprehensible.

A departure into techno-fantasies is woven with insecurity: in the face of economic and social turmoil, we have fled to a more secure, wistful past on our screens.This nostalgic drive expresses itself most powerfully on web 2.0 technologies. As populist contenders arise from the breakdown of existing economic and political arrangements, they have been largely successful in harnessing the power of social media to reach wider and more varied audiences than ever before.

Filtering DissentNew media’s business model compels digital platforms to accumulate users, foster sociality and popularity through filtering algorithms that maximise attention and retention, generate a social currency of engagement and approval, and ultimately boost advertising profits.

Going viral is the Holy Grail.Given the democratic principles at the core of the Internet, ‘trending’ parades as a cybernetic equivalent of the American Dream in a sprawling marketplace of eyeballs. As the corporate media’s concentrated spectacle is transmitted via the diffused spectacle of social media, the ‘

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narrowcasting’of content in many ways intensifies the docility of consumers.The governing protocols of interactive technologies present us with new dilemmas. Social media generates what Henry Jenkins describes as “affective economies,” in which users find legibility, or connectedness, through diverse emotional registers. 

If legibility is contingent upon messages resonating at a particular frequency, then dissent becomes incompatible within the format; deviation cannot be tolerated because of how communities have come to discipline themselves.Furthermore, there is an inherent vulgarisation of discourse that incentivises convergence over divergence – participation is predicated upon accruing attention and approval, insofar as there is unchallenged congruity of thought.

The correlation between the ability of consumers to filter their information by choice with the growth of echo chambers, while not wrong, is overstated. Less deliberated, is the individual’s automated extrapolation by algorithmic filters. Public discourse is increasingly mediated by proprietary software systems owned by a handful of major corporations (Facebook, Google), which run filtering algorithms to determine what information is displayed to users on their ‘feeds’. Far from being neutral and objective, these algorithms are powerful intermediaries that prioritise certain voices over others.

Upworthy co-founder Eli Pariser uses the term “filter bubble” to describe this phenomenon of narrowcasting on social media, which he attributes to the “personalisation algorithms” imposed by companies like Facebook and Google that end up deepening seclusion from contrasting viewpoints. 

Take the lead up to the 2016 US presidential election, which saw a proliferation of echo chambers on social platforms, as users limited to their own information bubbles were easy marks for misinformation campaigns.The source of these 'bubbles' on social media is a combination of specific filtering logics that have become predominant – especially those of similarity and social ties, which structurally reduce diversity by design.

Meanwhile, a thwarted agency under neoliberal atomisation – a fetishisation of the individual detached from society – feeds a source of frustrated volition; a sense where our work is meaningless and elections don’t matter. To seek a way out of self-paralysis and feel animated, we overcompensate with outrage. New technologies incentivise this by offering everyone, at virtually any given moment, a platform to express indignation.

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Through the currency of outrage, people can communicate their sensitivity to injustice through moralism culminating in today's 'age of outrage'. However, this discourse has been weaponised online as more of a vanity project, rather than attempting to identify problems and fix them in good faith.

‘Call-out’ culture, righteous grandstanding and public shaming are symptoms of a politics of defeat, as our (paradoxically) alienating social media platforms exacerbate tribalism and antagonistic speech to maximum effect. Outrage can be mobilised constructively as the #MeToo movement has shown, identifying and calling out offenders has resulted in moving the cultural needle on matters of sexual assault and harassment.

‘Post-Truth’ VortexIn a period of ascendant ethnocentrisms and authoritarian impulses, a ‘post-truth’ universe has become affixed to our turbulent socio-political landscape. Instead of ushering a new age where access to the truth becomes progressively democratised, the digital revolution – in its filtering of dissent – has facilitated half-baked beliefs to spread like wildfire into an ever-expanding cascade of disinformation.

The maxim “there are no facts, only interpretations” is warped into something of a postmodern platitude, whereby events that transpire are merely narratives to be inferred through a subjective lens. Lies can effectively masquerade as “alternative points of view,” as harmonious tones are amplified and transmissions that solicit dissonance are drowned out.

Hence, “facts possess a liberal bias,” and Kremlin propagandist-in-chiefDmitry Kiselyovcan declare, “there is no such thing as objective reporting.”On the surface, an old formula of slick, duplicitous stage management by the ruling class is not novel in itself. Politicians have always spouted falsehoods and cynically manoeuvred to preserve their interests. What distinguishes our epoch is a consensus responsible for manufacturing and maintaining consent – the technocratic urge to ‘fact check’ – was rendered impotent following the 2007-08 financial crisis, which ruptured the public’s faith in expertise, institutions and status-quo politics.

As a result, faith in conventional techniques for gauging reality (i.e., ‘facts’) has waned.In this context, ‘fake news’ is but a symptom of our information ecologies responding to fractures in big media’s monopoly over content. A wellspring of ‘alternative media’ outlets have benefited from these communicative fissures, exploiting new technologies and old techniques to compete on the plane of truth-telling.

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