The Need for Constructive Pessimism

The Need for Constructive Pessimism

Tuesday, 6 March, 2018 - 09:30
Objective, professional journalism — which seeks balance among respectable points of view — flourished, we should remind ourselves, within the context of the print-and-typewriter age: a more benign technology much less given to forgery and alteration compared with that of our current era.

The digital-video age may have begun in the latter part of the 20th century, but we saw its dramatic effect on politics during the 2016 election. It is common for there to be a lag time between technological innovation and political-military effect. Recall that although the Second Industrial Revolution began in the mid-19th century, we did not really see its effect on war until 1914.

It is impossible to imagine Trump and his repeated remarks that go viral except in the digital-video age. It is impossible to imagine our present political polarization except in the age of the Internet, which drives people to sites of extreme views that validate their pre-existing prejudices. And, it is impossible to imagine the degree and intensity of emotional and sensory manipulation, false rumors, exaggerations and character assassination that decay our public dialogue except in this new and terrifying age of technology which has only just begun.

Digital-video technology, precisely because it is given to manipulation, is inherently controlling. Think of how the great film directors of the 20th century were able to take over your mind for a few hours: a new experience for audiences that previous generations had never known. Theater may be as old as the ancient Greeks, but the technology of film lent a new and powerful force to the theatrical experience. Moreover, it was contained within a limited time period, and afterward you came back to the real world.

In the 21st century, dictators may have the capability to be the equivalent of film directors, and the show never stops. As for warfare itself, it will be increasingly about dividing and demoralizing enemy populations through disinformation campaigns whose techniques are still in their infancy.

The Chinese, eventually with the help of big data, are working on following the Internet searches of their citizens, then determining who needs to be singled out for further observation. If a government or a company knows the destination and sequence of all of your searches, it is virtually inside your mind. The possibilities are frightening, the vistas for oppression unbounded. The digital age, originally sold to us as empowering, could yet become the greatest threat to free thought and democracy in history. The very idea of something going viral is an expression of the mob more than of the individual. The fact that Google partially ranks search results in terms of how many other sites have linked to them reinforces groupthink, not individuality. The entire logic of the web works toward popularity, not quality, and certainly not toward truth.

Never before have we had to fight for democracy and individual rights as now in this new and — in some sense — dark age of technology. We must realize that the fight for democracy is synonymous with the fight for objectivity, which lies at the core of professional journalism — a calling whose foundational spirit was forged in the print-and-typewriter age, when mainly the movies were fake.

We will fight best by thinking tragically to avoid tragedy. This means learning to think like the tyrants who feed and prosper on misinformation so we can keep several steps ahead of them. Only in that way can we build safeguards against the specific dangers of the digital experience. The pioneers of Silicon Valley were inherent optimists who simply believed in connecting the world. But it is precisely such integration that provides our authoritarian enemies with access into our own democratic systems. The future will be about wars of integration rather than wars of geographic separation. So now constructive pessimism is called for. The innocent days when illusions were the province of movie stage sets are way behind us.

The Washington Post

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