Climate Disaster: A Rough Decade

This month is the tenth anniversary of The Illusion of More. Specifically, I believe the site launched on August 12, but I did not know what, if anything, I wanted to say to mark the occasion other than to thank readers for following and supporting the blog for a decade. And I am very grateful for that. But in light of the editorial focus of this blog and the state of the world, ouch. It’s been a rough ten years.

I asked in the intro to the first podcast in 2012 (an interview with journalist Christopher Dickey) whether digital technology was making things “suck faster,” whether the illusion of more access, engagement, and information would simply make otherwise reasonable people more rapidly and more virulently misinformed. For one contemporary answer to that question, read Francesca Tripodi’s recent article in Wired describing how Google’s changes to its “neutral” search engine can prioritize false information and reinforce a psychological vulnerability she calls the “IKEA effect,” (i.e., taking pride in something one has assembled). Tripodi writes:

Conspiracy theorists and propagandists are drawing on the same strategy, providing a tangible, do-it-yourself quality to the information they provide. Independently conducting a search on a given topic makes audiences feel like they are engaging in an act of self-discovery when they are actually participating in a scavenger-hunt engineered by those spreading the lies.

Or for a lighthearted version of the same principle, Craig Ferguson says in his Netflix special, “Tweet it, retweet it, retweet it again—fuckin’ true.”

As explained and reiterated in many posts on this blog, what began as a response to the lies and flood-the-zone tactics deployed in the anti-SOPA campaign of 2011/12 quickly encompassed a much broader concern about the major internet platforms (Big Tech) as a dangerous force that just might swallow democracy itself. This was not a popular view in 2012. Both official policy and public sentiment were predicated on a blind faith that more speech without restraint (i.e., direct democracy) had to be a good thing. That fallacy was central to rejecting the anti-piracy legislation just over a decade ago, and it persists today in, for instance, the Internet Archive’s rationales for its brand of book piracy.

Big Tech and its network of mostly left-leaning organizations said that harmful speech—from personal harassment to raving conspiracy—would be mitigated and safely marginalized by a fresh, invigorated dialogue enlightened by open access to information. Standing in the way of that utopian vision, they insisted, was “the government” in cahoots with corporate “gatekeepers” like the press, publishers, and Hollywood—all wielding the cudgel of copyright law to control what we are allowed to learn or experience. Meanwhile, the words of the prophets were written on the social media walls.

To suggest that, we seemed to be entering an age when information would be indistinguishable from bullshit, was to earn the title “luddite”. Even now, despite the overwhelming and terrifying events that have occurred in last ten years—all of it based on free access to deep wells of bullshit—the tech-utopians still believe in the illusion of more as surely as climate-change deniers refuse to see the science in the global havoc unfolding daily.

But lest anyone think that conspiratorial delusions are exclusively the opiate of the Trump cult, I would ask readers to remember the climate changes in our politics that were taking place before the Tiki Torch parade began. When the Ed Snowden story broke, and my friends on the left went nuts about those revelations, I wrote a post recommending calm, in which I opined, “While oversight is an essential, and believe it or not still extant, component of the American system, a universal and unwavering distrust in ‘the government’ is tantamount to distrust in one another, and this is the cancer that grows into a malignant threat to civil liberty.”

And here we are, witnessing real threats to the constitutional order of the United States, as the Former Republican Party (FRP) is consumed by a cult of personality, surfing waves of bullshit about the most basic mechanisms of government and law enforcement. On the other side, we share memes lampooning the “law and order” party for shrugging off credible threats to attack the FBI, the Attorney General, and a federal judge, but perhaps we choose to forget that this same conspiratorial rhetoric, comparing the American justice system to the KGB et al., was more universal before the election of 2016.

Like watching glaciers melt and rivers evaporate, it is easy to think that the erosion of trust in core institutions is beyond repair–that it is really just a question of who is doing the distrusting. And to believe that social platforms are not an underlying cause of this harm is as willfully ignorant as believing that easy access to firearms is not the key ingredient in mass shootings.

Social media offers some nice features, but on balance, it has made everything suck faster. It is a hallucinogen that produces twin chimeras named Information and Engagement, who gnaw on Common Sense and Humility until Narcissism and Arrogance prevail. Take for instance, this little collage made from responses to photographer Jeff Sedlik’s copyright lawsuit against tattoo artist Kat Von D:

I draw your attention to both the ignorance and the style in this hatecloud—not because it is rare, but because it is common to the point of predictable. This is how we talk now about almost everything. Those comments were made by ordinary individuals, probably decent people most of the time, but who would be unlikely to admit that they know less than nothing about the law or about Sedlik and his motives. And all that rancor directed at one individual, empowered by the technology designed to “connect people,” is just a response to a little copyright case. So, can we really be surprised that, by means of the same tech exploiting the same psychological frailties, tens of millions of people are easily duped into believing that an election was stolen, or that the U.S. Justice Department is indistinguishable from the Stasi?

In 2012, in that same intro to the first podcast, I quoted Mark Twain who said, “It’s not what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” A keen observer of human nature, Twain foretold the Big Tech Lie that is still flooding the zone with millions of other lies, which, like too much carbon in the atmosphere, may yet make the world uninhabitable.

Photo by: ole999

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