The Guardian ran an article yesterday by one of its editors, David Shariatmadari, that both proves and disproves its own theme at the same time: “An Information Apocalypse Is Coming”. Now, I don’t fancy the term apocalypse in a setting like this, it feels too much like going for a cheap thrill, but since he used it, why not.
My first reaction to the headline, and the article, is: what do you mean it’s ‘coming’? Don’t you think we have such an apocalypse already, that we’re living it, we’re smack in the middle of such a thing? If you don’t think so, would that have anything to do with you working at a major newspaper? Or with your views of the world, political and other, that shape how you experience ‘information’?
Shariatmadari starts out convincingly and honestly enough with a description of a speech that JFK was supposed to give in Dallas right after he was murdered, a speech that has been ‘resurrected’ using technology that enables one to make it seem like he did deliver it.
“In a world of complex and continuing problems, in a world full of frustrations and irritations, America’s leadership must be guided by the lights of learning and reason, or else those who confuse rhetoric with reality, and the plausible with the possible will gain the popular ascendancy with their seemingly swift and simple solutions to every world problem.”
John F Kennedy’s last speech reads like a warning from history, as relevant today as it was when it was delivered in 1963 at the Dallas Trade Mart. His rich, Boston Brahmin accent reassures us even as he delivers the uncomfortable message. The contrast between his eloquence and the swagger of Donald Trump is almost painful to hear.
Yes, Kennedy’s words are lofty ones, and they do possess at least some predictive qualities. But history does play a part too. Would we have read the same in them that we do now, had Kennedy not been shot right before he could deliver them? Hard to tell.
What’s more, not long before JFK was elected president America had been in the tight and severe grip of J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist campaign, in which lots of reality was replaced with rhetoric, something Kennedy undoubtedly had in mind while writing the speech. JFK was not just addressing future threats, he was talking about the past as well.
But the writer slips into a much bigger faux pas right after: injecting Trump into the picture. It’s fine if someone doesn’t like Trump, but naming him there and then, in an article about ‘information apocalypse’, also means confusing objectivity with regards to your topic with subjectivity concerning your political ideas. While the Kennedy speech item relates to -advancing(?)- technology, a valid part of the apocalypse, mentioning Trump has nothing to do with that apocalypse, at least not objectively. Back to David Shariatmadari:
The problem is, Kennedy never spoke these words. He was killed before he made it to the Trade Mart. You can only hear them now thanks to audio technology developed by a British company, CereProc. Fragments of his voice have been taken from other speeches and public appearances, spliced and put back together, with neural networks employed to mimic his natural intonation. The result is pretty convincing, although there’s a machine-like ring to some of the syllables, a synthetic stutter. Enough to recognise, if you already know, that this is a feat of technology, not oratory.
We like to think of innovation as morally neutral. We empower scientists and engineers to range freely in the hope they might discover things that save labour and lives. The ends to which these are put aren’t the responsibility of the researchers. The agile robots produced by Boston Dynamics might look like they could cheerfully pin you up against a wall and snap your neck, but do we really want to close off this avenue of research? After all, they might equally be capable of performing life-saving surgery. The methods used to resurrect JFK can also help people with illnesses such as motor neurone disease – like the late Stephen Hawking – that affect their ability to speak.
It’s certainly true that we are so ‘geared’ towards progress, we ‘conveniently’ forget and ignore that every next step carries its own shadow side, every yin comes with its yang. ‘Progress’ and ‘innovation’ – and related terms- ring so positive in our eyes and ears it borders on -wilful- blindness. That blindness is set to play a major role in our future, and in our acceptance as gospel of a lot of ‘information’.
“Dual use” of technology is not a new problem. Nuclear physics gave us both energy and bombs. What is new is the democratisation of advanced IT, the fact that anyone with a computer can now engage in the weaponisation of information; 2016 was the year we woke up to the power of fake news, with internet conspiracy theories and lies used to bolster the case for both Brexit and Donald Trump.
Ouch! See, he does it again. This is not an objective discourse on ‘information disinformation’, but a way to make people think -through a method he’s supposed to be exposing- that ‘fake news’ led to Brexit and Trump. That’s a political view, not a neutral one. Yes, there are many voices out there who connect ‘fake news’ directly to things they don’t like, but that’s just a trap.
And as I said, it may have to do with the fact that the writer works for a major newspaper, which of course he wants to, and wishes to, see as some kind of beacon against fake news, but if he lets his own personal views slip into an objective treatment of a topic this easily, it automatically becomes self-defeating.
There is no proof that Trump and Brexit’s success are down to fake news more than their opposite sides, ‘fake news’ is everywhere, and that very much includes the Guardian. The coverage of the UK government accusations against Russia in the poisoning case proves that more than ever.
You can be anti-Trump, anti-Brexit and anti-Putin all you want, but they don’t define fake news or an information apocalypse, any more than ‘commies’ did in the days of Hoover and McCarthy.
We may, however, look back on it as a kind of phoney war, when photoshopping and video manipulation were still easily detectable. That window is closing fast. A program developed at Stanford University allows users to convincingly put words into politicians’ mouths. Celebrities can be inserted into porn videos. Quite soon it will be all but impossible for ordinary people to tell what’s real and what’s not.
That is am almost bewildering line. Does the writer really think ‘ordinary people’ can today tell apart what’s real and what’s not? If his paper had honestly covered his country’s, and his government’s, involvement in the wars all over the Middle East and North Africa over the past decades, would his readers still be supportive of the politicians that today inhabit Westminster?
Or does the paper prefer supporting the incumbents over Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, because it owes its reputation and position and revenues to supporting the likes of Theresa May and Tony Blair? Yeah, I know, with a critical view, yada yada, but when has the Guardian labeled any UK politician a war criminal? Much easier to go after Farage, isn’t it? The question is: what part of this is fake, and what is not?
What will the effects of this be? When a public figure claims the racist or sexist audio of them is simply fake, will we believe them? How will political campaigns work when millions of voters have the power to engage in dirty tricks? What about health messages on the dangers of diesel or the safety of vaccines? Will vested interests or conspiracy theorists attempt to manipulate them?
This appears to make sense, but it does not really. We are way past that. ‘Ordinary people’ have already lost their capacity to tell truth from fiction. Newspapers and TV stations have long disseminated the views of their owners, it’s just that they now have -newfound- competition from a million other sources: the blessings of social media.
The core issue here is that 1984 is not some point in the future, as we for some reason prefer to think. We are living 1984. Perhaps the fact that we are now 34 years past it should give us a clue about that? People tend to think that perhaps Orwell was right, but his predictions were way early. Were they, though?
Also: Orwell may not have foreseen the blessings and trappings of social media, but he did foresee how governments and their media sympathizers would react to them: with more disinformation.
Unable to trust what they see or hear, will people retreat into lives of non-engagement, ceding the public sphere to the already powerful or the unscrupulous? The potential for an “information apocalypse” is beginning to be taken seriously.
This is a full-blown time warp. If it is true that people only now take the potential for an “information apocalypse” seriously, they are so far behind the curve ball that one must question the role of the media in that. Why didn’t people know about that potential when it was an actual issue? Why did nobody tell them?
The problem is we have no idea what a world in which all words and images are suspect will look like, so it’s hard to come up with solutions.
Yes, we do have an idea about that, because we see it around us 24/7. Maybe not with images as fully fabricated as the JFK speech, but the essence is manipulation itself, not the means by which it’s delivered.
Perhaps not very much will change – perhaps we will develop a sixth sense for bullshit and propaganda, in the same way that it has become easy to distinguish sales calls from genuine inquiries, and scam emails with fake bank logos from the real thing.
David, we ARE all bullshitters, we all lie all the time, for a myriad of reasons, to look better, to feel better, to seem better, to get rich, to get laid. It’s who we are. We lie to ourselves most of all. A sixth sense against bullshit and propaganda is the very last thing we will ever develop, because it would force us to face our own bullshit.
But there’s no guarantee we’ll be able to defend ourselves from the onslaught, and society could start to change in unpredictable ways as a result. Like the generation JFK was addressing in his speech, we are on the cusp of a new and scary age. Rhetoric and reality, the plausible and the possible, are becoming difficult to separate. We await a figure of Kennedy’s stature to help us find a way through. Until then, we must at the very least face up to the scale of the coming challenge.
We are not ‘on the cusp of a new and scary age’, we are smack in the middle of it. We haven’t been able to separate rhetoric and reality, the plausible and the possible, for ages. What’s different from 100 years ago, or 50 years ago, is that now we are faced with an information overload so severe that this in itself makes us less capable of separating chaff from wheat.
So yes, that perhaps is new. But bullshit and propaganda are not. And labeling Trump and Brexit the main threats misses your own topic by miles. You could make an equally valid point that they are the results of many years of bullshit and propaganda by old-style politics and old-style media.
Maybe they’re what happens when ‘ordinary people’ switch off from an overload of bullshit and propaganda forced upon them by people and institutions they grew up to trust. And then feel they were betrayed by. A sixth sense after all.