Something to watch out for; or, Info-feudalism? Not on my watch; or, Tricknology 2.0

Just over 10 years ago, as part of the Library 2.0 course (which I am ashamed to say I never finished; but I was mainly participating as support for less tech-savvy colleagues, and Library IT was even more understaffed then than it is now), I wrote a blog entry entitled Tricknology, in which I contended that technology inherently tips the scales towards falsehood.

My thinking was that, given that our approach to learning was evolved at a time when there was a pretty straightforward link between what we noticed and how it affected us, and therefore looks for repeated patterns, we are vulnerable to repeated false information – i.e. Hitler’s Big Lie, or Arendt’s argument from consistency.

Since technology is a tool for reproduction and transmission of information regardless of whether it’s true or false, and indeed IT is giving us the capacity to create false information which looks ever more plausible (up to and including computer-generated news footage, as I mentioned all those years ago), my argument was that technology, by dint of its purported neutrality, in fact serves to massively undermine the main advantage that truth has over lies: the relative difficulty of convincingly reproducing false experiences (the effort and cunning that goes into stage magic is an example).

Truth needs that advantage. If you don’t care about truth, you can play on all the cognitive weak spots of the human brain and create ideas and arguments that are near irresistible despite being demonstrable rubbish. We’ve seen that even in an age where evidence is hard to fake (indeed, corporations’ and politicians’ willingness to undermine notions of truth and evidence, and general standards of accountability, in order to negate inconvenient truths and the public’s willingness to listen to evidence has been a key driver in the development of the techniques now in play); how much more difficult is it going to be to resist manipulative crap when it has the ability to deceive not only our cognition but our empirical sensory processes as well?

Well, as we’ve all seen, that wasn’t a spurious concern. Here’s Aviv Ovadya, someone far better informed and better positioned to explore these ideas authoritatively (and a handy summary of the issues just popped up in his Twitter feed here). But for whatever it’s worth here are my thoughts, in particular as they relate to libraries.



We may be heading for an age of info-feudalism, where we are back to the Dark Ages in terms of having reliable empirical evidence of the wider world, and trust for such mediated information lies with hierarchical structures of authority (in the academic sense, i.e., the ability to make authoritative statements) that replicate the feudal system in form.

By this I mean there will be a roughly pyramidal system (or rather competing systems) of authority which delegates trust from to lesser bodies but reserves the right to overrule them, who in turn delegate to lesser authorities, etc. Individuals may pay particular credence to particular bodies within that arrangement, as a vassal might be more loyal to their local lord than to the king, but in the wider scheme of things the lord is dependent on the king. (The Catholic Church, with its various orders and lay movements which may be at loggerheads over questions of doctrine but which are all subject to papal edict and excommunication, offers an example of this.)

More egalitarian, mutual models are possible. For instance, entities such as Amnesty International, which has a demonstrable history of eschewing partisan politics and undertaking its own research, as well as member-elected oversight, already has tools for assessing the credibility of other bodies when considering partnerships and examining evidence for its reports. Such bodies may be willing to vouch for other organisations not as a function of control but as a way of incentivizing trustworthiness and expanding the sphere within which rational study, debate and decision are possible. Libraries should absolutely look to be part of these networks (provided of course that they are actually truthful organisations!) wherever possible.

Regardless of form, these structures may or may not bear and delegate decision-making authority as well. (Realistically, many will. Determining truth means determining the basis for action. But to my mind this is essentially eliding the press and the executive and is comparably dangerous to eliding the legislative and judicial functions.)

This all sounds like a nightmare to me too, but we live in an age of dawning nightmares, and what I’m describing here is not so far from the state of modern electoral politics and partisan media, so the library sector needs to think how it’s going to try to prevent such a scenario, and how to handle it if it arises.


The feudal library

I like to imagine libraries in such a world as something like abbeys for truth: communities of scholarship keeping the faith of free inquiry and quality information.

Realistically, like most actual historical abbeys, they will be constantly in tension with whichever other local powers hold sway; they will need some sort of external source of authority to keep such other powers off their back; and to the extent that they succeed in keeping to their mission, will be both an irritant and a tempting target to plunder. We will need to have each other’s backs and to have our community’s backs to the point where messing with us is clearly messing with them.

Regardless, here are the things that libraries dedicated to truth needs to be actively helping our communities to develop, something which we really should have been doing more of all along:

  • Info-literacy: helping people understand statements of scientific fact (how to comprehend the difference between generalisations and universal statements, probability, stats etc) and to distinguish them from hypotheses and theories, opinion, and articles of faith. Helping people understand the importance of controlling for bias in their experiments (double-blind techniques, etc.) and accounting for conflicts of interest and other motivating factors in reporting results, also including the fact that having a conflict of interest (especially one that’s openly declared) is not the same as being entirely unqualified to comment.
  • Critical thinking: techniques to spot elements of ideas and social structures that engineer compliance, complicity, complaisance. Stories of overcoming each.
    • Among other things, this will mean not exactly naming and debunking all cults, but stating plainly what the signs of cultic organisation are (social isolation from non-believers, extensive systems of monitoring and control, requiring surrender of individual autonomy at personal and economic levels, punishment for leaving, etc). This will make enemies; or more precisely, since these organisations were already enemies of free inquiry and freedom generally, will upset these pre-existing enemies.
  • Tech-awareness: what kinds of things can be faked? Which have demonstrably been faked? What are the signs that give fakes away? The role of privacy for preventing mass-manipulation and tools for creating/protecting privacy.
  • Psychological literacy: learning about cognitive bias and developing the skills to spot liars. (The game Werewolf is especially useful both for developing an instinct for deception and for demonstrating that it is possible to inch towards truth and the identification of liars in the absence of any certain knowledge.)
  • Self-awareness: as part of developing psychological literacy, making sure that people have direct experiences of their own cognitive bias, as one of the biggest cognitive biases we have is that we ourselves wouldn’t fall prey to the cognitive bias that afflicts everyone else. Games in general are incredibly powerful tools for this sort of education.
  • Undertaking and promulgating the study of power and corruption: there are patterns to how people become corrupted, and highlighting the danger points will either help people stay honest, or, if they fail to do so, stop them doing as much harm.
  • Human rights principles: in some ways, being fooled matters the most when it fulfills Voltaire’s dictum “any one who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices”. The surest antidote to that is to have unyielding boundaries to behaviour, such that whatever you believe, atrocities are never the result because they are simply not something you ever do. This was the wisdom of the survivors of World War 2 in 1948, and the principles have withstood the test of 70 years of malignment by despots of every stripe.
    • This means considering what we can do about the normalisation of torture in popular fiction. Everywhere I look – light-hearted crime drama (which in itself is a slightly weird phrase) like Castle, formerly highly ethical science fiction such as Star Trek, even superhero movies where the constraints of reality are entirely optional and the whole point is to be mythic and idealistic – torture is happening routinely at the hands of “good guys”, and routinely succeeding at getting the information needed. But torture doesn’t work. And it’s least likely to work in the scenarios where it’s most commonly “justified” – the ticking timebomb, the missing child – precisely because the person being tortured knows that there will come a point where even if they give up the information it will be too late, and so the torture will have no reason to continue.
      I realise that this is outside our traditional purview, but I consider this not only a question of protecting human rights norms, but of informational literacy.
  • Information theory principles for freedom: the need to not lie and to visibly identify and penalise lies and confirmed liars, but conversely the danger for such systems to be manipulated (to “love truth but forgive error”, to quote Voltaire again); default boundaries of acceptable inquiry into and judgment of others’ personal lives, so that the requirement to be honest doesn’t become overly intrusive and oppressive; techniques and fora for allowing unwelcome and apparently-incorrect opinions to be expressed in ways that give them the chance to either prove themselves or be debunked, without spilling over and having harmful effects in the wider world.
  • Systems thinking and game theory to see how individual instances that might merely be dodgy become horrific in bulk.
  • Modelling a rethought morality that includes the results of that thinking and places the proper significance on lies as informational coercion and injury of a severity related to the importance of the question at hand; inadvertent repetition of incorrect information as a form of possibly negligent accidental injury; and the technology of generating convincing false images as something that needs to be highly regulated and its practitioners given extensive ethical training.
  • Developing and demonstrating the importance of structures of authority (in the academic sense) that are non-hierarchical and as easy as possible to verify independently and locally. This means supporting citizen science, the development of local and democratically accessible facilities that support people to verify at least the basic principles of the sciences and to begin to understand the value of experimental techniques, including reproducibility, and so on.

Note that these things not only protect individuals, they also serve to increase the systemic resistance to the spread of lies. Every little bit of friction everywhere along the way helps.

The other thing is that libraries need to start thinking about these things now. They’re not far away, as Ovadya makes clear. We need to step up our efforts to be known as places that will help people find facts. This not only benefits us in the current world, it means that if the infocalypse comes, we are in a position to keep serving our community.

This will mean hiring more knowledgeable folks in a broader range of disciplines on staff. It will also mean beginning to take seriously the skills and knowledge we already have on staff, and treating them as things that we can account for and make visible and available to the community. It makes little sense to me that my colleague’s encyclopaedic knowledge of modern European royalty is only available to the public if someone happens to ask them or someone who knows of their interest.

Lastly, it also means advocating for explicit commitments to truthfulness and standards of evidence, and to institutions like ours that make those things accessible to the public, from our leaders. Someone (preferably many someones) has to be the custodian of this ideal; and as the institution whose mission is literally to bring these things into our communities, if not us, then who?


P.S. GLAM Blog Club readers might feel this is a bit of a cheaty way to hit the theme of “Watch”. But I honestly believe this is something to watch, and in fact that we are watching happen right now. Hopefully we can do more than just watch…