Goodbye, Information Age


Fake news“Say goodbye to the information age: it’s all about reputation now,” is the headline of an article by Italian philosopher and professor Gloria Origgi, published recently on Aeon Magazine’s website.

She writes:

…the vastly increased access to information and knowledge we have today does not empower us or make us more cognitively autonomous. Rather, it renders us more dependent on other people’s judgments and evaluations of the information with which we are faced.

I no longer need to open a computer, go online and type my questions into Google if I want to know something: I can simply ask it. “Hey Google, what’s the population of China?” or “Hey Google, who’s the mayor of Midland, Ontario?” or “Hey Google, how many lines are in Hamlet?” Google will answer with all the data. If I ask, “Hey Google, what are the headlines this morning?” it will play a recent CBC newscast.

Google Home can, however, only give me a summary, a snippet, a teaser. Should I want to delve deeper or into than one question, I still need to go online and search. And that leads me into the information swamp that is the internet. How do i sort it all out?

The way we access information has changed as radically as the amount available to us. Just look at the Cambridge Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2018: “Nomophobia” which means “a fear or worry at the idea of being without your mobile phone or unable to use it”.

Describing a typical day in his life, Dan Nixon writes of how we isolate ourselves with out phones, imagining they are instead connecting us:

…the deluge of stimuli competing to grab our attention almost certainly inclines us towards instant gratification. This crowds out space for the exploratory mode of attention. When I get to the bus stop now, I automatically reach for my phone, rather than stare into space; my fellow commuters (when I do raise my head) seem to be doing the same thing.

What could there be that is so engaging on the phone that the writer cannot use the time to, say, think? Read? Observe? Communicate with his fellow travellers? Eleven studies found that “…participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts.” The phone serves as a personal barrier to interaction instead of facilitating it. It’s a feedback loop: making it seem we are “doing something” by giving us a sensory response, while making it seem that simply thinking is “doing nothing.”

“Nothing, to my way of thinking, is better proof of a well-ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.”
Seneca, Letter II to Lucilius, trans. Robin Campbell, Penguin Classics: Letters from a Stoic, 2004.

Information overload
Charles Dickens was a prodigious walker, often walking 20 miles a day. During that time, he observed humanity as background for his books, and he also thought. No phone, no tablet: just his mind churning away. Hardly “doing nothing.” Can someone who spends most of his or her time staring into a phone imagine Oliver Twist, much less actually take the time to write it?

When Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau announced his decision to resign, he did so after his now-famous “walk in the snow” to contemplate his future. Again without the support or distractions of a mobile device.

Origgi writes:

We are experiencing a fundamental paradigm shift in our relationship to knowledge. From the ‘information age’, we are moving towards the ‘reputation age’, in which information will have value only if it is already filtered, evaluated and commented upon by others. Seen in this light, reputation has become a central pillar of collective intelligence today. It is the gatekeeper to knowledge, and the keys to the gate are held by others. The way in which the authority of knowledge is now constructed makes us reliant on what are the inevitably biased judgments of other people, most of whom we do not know.

Hardly news. Throughout written history we have had advisors, councils, clergy and viziers who provided information to royalty. Information was filtered and translated through them to the decisions makers, often colouring the way the king or queen saw the world. Machiavelli dedicated Chapter 22 of The Prince to selecting good advisers. Nowadays we have committees and boards who do the same for elected governments. The Canadian Senate is an appointed body that oversees our legislation and advises the government when such legislation is deemed unacceptable.

In The Discourses Machiavelli wrote:

“People, often deceived by an illusive good, desire their own ruin, and, unless they are made sensible of the evil of the one and the benefit of the other course by someone in whom they have confidence…”
The Discourses: I, 53

Similarly, there have been opinions printed in books and in newspapers that have influenced readers ever since printing was first invented. Martin Luther created the 16th century Protestant Reformation by spreading ideas that others adopted from his books – not because they knew him. In the TV era, people trusted Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow and Peter Mansbridge to give them reliable, credible news but few actually knew these newscasters personally. Newspapers like the Globe and Mail, New York Times and Ottawa Citizen were known for their credibility, as were their main reporters and columnists. Can we still believe in them – or any media – today?

Today it is harder to know who or what to believe in broadcast or the ever-declining print news – certainly only fools or the gullible believe in content spread by such ideologically-motivated media like Faux News or Postmedia. And with 500-plus TV stations, millions of YouTube channels and websites – where do you you start trying to sort out the wheat from the chaff?

Reputation? I think since radio came along it’s always played a significant part in determining what we hear or read or watch. But reputation depends on consistency. It’s difficult to believe in news media that cater to the lowest common denominator by pumping gossip and scandal over news. Reputation depends on high standards, not on lowering the bar. And no matter what you think of the source, fake news is still fake news and poisons the conversation.


With so much information coming at us, much of it from such questionable sources, and our mad penchant for being connected and online 24/7, to avoid being sucked into the quagmire, we need someone or some service to help us sort out and filter both what is factual and what is relevant. Origgi adds,

Without an evaluative judgment about the reliability of a certain source of information, that information is, for all practical purposes, useless.

The biggest problem, Origgi acknowledges, is trying to assess the information ourselves. Most of us are simply not capable of or equipped to do so. As a result, we have to decide our filters based on trust:

Whenever we are at the point of accepting or rejecting new information, we should ask ourselves: Where does it come from? Does the source have a good reputation? Who are the authorities who believe it? What are my reasons for deferring to these authorities? Such questions will help us to get a better grip on reality than trying to check directly the reliability of the information at issue. In a hyper-specialised system of the production of knowledge, it makes no sense to try to investigate on our own, for example, the possible correlation between vaccines and autism. It would be a waste of time, and probably our conclusions would not be accurate. In the reputation age, our critical appraisals should be directed not at the content of information but rather at the social network of relations that has shaped that content and given it a certain deserved or undeserved ‘rank’ in our system of knowledge.

But we face similar confusion trying to asses the credibility of media based on reputation. The ideological polarization of modern politics has encouraged similar bifurcation in media. Fox News, for example, has a great reputation among those who are already ideologically onside and for whom the Faux misinformation merely reinforced their existing beliefs. That doesn’t mean Faux is factual. Even our own national broadcaster, the CBC – once a highly trustworthy source of news – has lost some credibility by publishing unfounded allegations and innuendo (as we well know locally). Local media – once the community’s main source of local news, opinions and events – provides barely more than filler to occupy spaces around the ads.

Even our own national broadcaster, the CBC, has lost some credibility by publishing unfounded allegations and innuendo (we well know that locally!). Local media is barely more than filler to occupy spaces around the ads.

Reputation, then, becomes a matter of faith, not of objective analysis.

Two decades ago, when the internet was just in its infancy, E.O. Wilson wrote:

We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.
E. O. Wilson: Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998)

I think today we might add that the world will be run by those people are able to spin doctor it to suit the ideology that pays their wages.

Look, for example at the arch-liar Sarah Huckabee Sanders, described by Salon magazine as having,”..a legacy of lying to such a degree it’s become a farce.” Yet despite having an even lower credibility rating than her truthless boss, she continues to spin doctor his presidency every day to an extraordinary degree. It’s a web of deceit everywhere you look.

As news watchers, we are forced to decide whether to believe in her (and in her boss) and the media that share her statements uncorrected or unchallenged, or in the media that report, critique and correct her (and his) untruths. That decision is most likely done on an ideological, rather than fact-based or objective, basis. True, the scale seems to be weighted with Faux News on her side and the rest of the American and most international media on the other. But there are still people who will decide, against all proof to the contrary, that Faux News has a better reputation for truth than all the rest combined. That’s faith, not facts, calling the shots.

In essence, it’s more about morality than reputation. Early in the presidential campaign, Trump’s supporters had already decided adultery wasn’t an issue, or anything else which exposed his moral failures (adultery by candidates didn’t seem to bother local voters last municipal election, either). Lust, greed, sloth, narcissism, jealousy, racism – nothing mattered to his followers. So, having already shed pretty much every standard of behaviour and comportment we used to value in our leaders, it wasn’t far to go for them to give up truth, too.

Psychologist Bobby Azarian, Ph.D., writing in Psychology Today suggests many of Trump’s supporters “…put their practical concerns above their moral ones. To them, it does not make a difference if he’s a vagina-grabber, or if his campaign team colluded with Russia to help him defeat his political opponent.” Putting practical concerns over morality is, however, the pinnacle of selfish and thoughtless behaviour. It undermines democracy.

If we know we are being misled and we don’t care, or we are willing to excuse those who mislead us because it suits our own needs or views, then there is no morality left that binds us. We have nothing in common. Once we chose to reject truth as a core value, ideologues can easily manipulate and control us because we have no defence against them; nothing to measure their claims against. And worse, the ideologues control the media AND the technology.

In a parallel article on Aeon, Dan Nixon wrote about how “our devices and apps are intentionally designed to get us hooked” and the need to focus our limited attention resources to make sense of the world:

The ‘attention economy’ is a phrase that’s often used to make sense of what’s going on: it puts our attention as a limited resource at the centre of the informational ecosystem, with our various alerts and notifications locked in a constant battle to capture it… Our attention, when we fail to put it to use for our own objectives, becomes a tool to be used and exploited by others.

In Plato’s dialogue, The Phaedrus, Socrates warned his fellow Greeks about writing, saying it would be the enemy of memory. He has the Egyptian king Thamus respond to the god Thoth’s offer of the gift of writing, by turning it down, saying what could as easily be said about today’s social media:

…this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

Let me repeat some of that. As you read it, think about some of the recent news about how social media has affected elections, politics and communities, and how several nations have used it to spread disinformation and undermine democracies: “You give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

Twenty-five-hundred years ago and those words define not just social media but Faux News and the Trump presidency so well it’s eerily prescient.

So yes, Origgi is right in that without reliable information, we have nothing, and we need to find credible sources to help us sort through the mire. Social media is the very antithesis of credibility, so it’s useless (despite the efforts of some users to post only factual content and not opinion). Social media reduces discussion to the equivalent of bumper stickers printed in all-caps. As for traditional media, like I said: it’s an ideological choice which to believe in.

I doubt we could ever achieve Origgi’s “civilized cyberworld” because it would mean everyone would need to use a combination of common sense, critical thinking, skepticism, logic and analysis:

A civilised cyber-world will be one where people know how to assess critically the reputation of information sources, and can empower their knowledge by learning how to gauge appropriately the social ‘rank’ of each bit of information that enters their cognitive field.

From this it seems Origgi assumes that as humans, we are intellectually active, curious and capable enough to at the very least sort out who or what is credible among the vast volumes of dross that is online. And that we enjoy, learning. Personally, I doubt the truth in that.

We are, as a species, prone to laziness and addicted to ease and convenience (Azzarian comments on “…America’s addiction to entertainment and reality TV” as a factor in Trump’s popularity: people are more interested in being entertained – a selfish act – than in learning or discerning the truth). Thinking is hard work, learning is too. Easier to simply accept what others say and share their posts than to do the investigative work to discern the truth ourselves. Facebook survives on the shared meme as a result. We’re gullible for anything that bolsters our preconceptions or beliefs and scared of anything that challenges, even minutely, our worldview.

(And for some, Azzarian notes, it’s about the money; the rest of the world be damned as long as they get more for themselves: “For some wealthy people, it’s simply a financial matter. Trump offers tax cuts for the rich and wants to do away with government regulation that gets in the way of businessmen making money, even when that regulation exists for the purpose of protecting the environment.”)

In his book, Homo Deus, Yuval Harai says knowledge is an inexhaustible resource, and “the more you use it, the more you have.” That’s not quite correct: it’s possible to ignore knowledge, mis-interpret and even deny it (think climate change deniers or any Donald Trump fan). In the abstract, knowledge may be limitless, but humans have a very real limit to their capacity to absorb it, let alone to sort through it and determine its validity. And Trump is living proof you don’t need much of it to rise to the top.

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