Acquired Information Deficiency Syndrome, or the Crisis of Trust

30.03.2018

The world has plunged into information chaos and both elites and ordinary people are drowning in it. The consequences of global inability to understand what is happening can be terrifying, up to destruction or significant degradation of humanity. Harbingers of that can be observed right now.

The Skripal affair and its frightening consequences, the scandals around Donald Trump, the fights in the Nigerian parliament, clashes in the Middle East, the Catalan quest for independence etc. shatter the modern world, and for all their differences these developments have something in common. This is immersion into information chaos, into a muddy mix of unchecked facts, bias, conscious manipulations and unconscious mistakes.

Of course, humanity has always lived in a world of myths and deception. Columbus discovered America on the basis of incorrect information about the Earth, and the First World War largely resulted from misunderstanding and lack of effective communication. But today’s situation is unprecedented due to the incredible growth of communications.

And the point is not that inaccurate and incorrect information often served as the basis for decisions, but that we ended up in a world order where all information almost ceased to be definite. In a sense, the trouble is that lies began to be exposed too quickly. And this rapidity caused an unprecedented frustration which has engulfed both ordinary people and the elites.

Columbus lived in a world of inaccurate and incorrect information. But this inaccuracy was stable. For centuries, for example, people believed in antipodes or cynocephaly. And although these mythological creatures did not exist, knowledge about them did not prevent people from quarrelling with neighbours because of a broken fence or from conquering neighbouring counties.

But, imagine, one morning it suddenly turns out that your neighbour is an antipode, and by lunchtime he is also a doghead, and information about his “antipodity” has been declared false. In the evening, it turns out that all of that is fake news, but nevertheless, at dawn, there are reports that you are an antipode yourself, and this is not claimed by your neighbour, but by a count whom you conquered long ago. In addition, he says that from the other realm, whose existence your neighbour fiercely denies. This, of course, will make your head reel.

And the head of the modern world is reeling.

Trust was the first victim of this dizziness. More precisely, the increase of mistrust in a geometric progression has led to total distrust. And this applies not only to the aggravated relations between Russia and the West. To a greater or lesser extent this global mistrust, global relativism has struck the entire modern world.

The erosion of our perception of reality began long ago, probably immediately after the Second World War. It happened gradually, along with the penetration of the postmodern discourse into the thinking of intellectuals (and politicians are, in general, intellectuals). However, the postmodern spirit, corroding the values, suddenly found itself in a world of information and communication abundance, in the stormy ocean of diverse information that no head can contain. Especially as, according to anthropologists, the brain volume of the modern human is shrinking.

Once Again on the New Journalistic Renaissance Andrey Bystritskiy
One of the results of the new information abundance is the scattering of the audience, its growing inclination toward a sort of cohesiveness and a search for a local self-identification. As has been said, the audience falls into a cognitive dissonance, taking an opportunist position toward the growing number of messages. This leads to a desire to simplify the incoming information as much as possible, refuse difficult decisions, doubts and so on. This cognitive dissonance is not cause by a flood of information, but the last puts the dominant part of the audience in an almost inescapable position.

In general, a rabid kaleidoscope of unverified news confuses almost everyone, including many politicians. Not only ordinary people, but also the elites are tearing around, trying to avoid frustration arising from the inability to cope with the increasing amount of information, to separate lies from the truth, to build an integral picture of the world.

Simplification is a natural way out of the situation of insurmountable complexity. People try to simplify the picture of the world, to reduce it to an intelligible size and designs. But often this simplification is of malignant nature and leads to the loss of essential elements of the world order. And such malignant simplification can result in war against what contradicts the established simplified model.

The destruction of the usual system of information collection and assessment, decision-making, leads to a kind of information psychosis, it generates the desire to somehow regain control over information flows. In a sense, the popularity of phenomena like Cambridge Analytics is a consequence of this kind of aspirations. Nevertheless the effectiveness of such organizations is extremely doubtful. In my opinion, our real knowledge of the processes of public opinion manipulations and citizens’ behaviour is rather weak. So far, we are most likely dealing with some kind of homunculi of the information age, dangerous rather than useful, because they only intensify the already increasing chaos of meanings, even more confusing knowledge and ignorance into a single unviable essence.

By the way, it’s not only politics which is struck by this information AIDS and loses immunity to fake news. Something like this is happening in science, especially related to human beings. Endless reports about stem cells and naked mole-rats are more of the same. The matter is not in the ordinary credulity of humans. Long ago Lucian wrote about this kind of tricks, and Mikhail Bulgakov’s professor Preobrazhensky was planning to transplant the “ovaries of a young monkey.” The matter is in a qualitatively new situation with information.

Information entanglement gives rise to illusions of power, a new Babylon tower of information emerges from countless inaccurate facts thanks to modern communication technologies. By the way, the new tower, like the previous one, is largely the result of pride, which disguises confusion over a world too complicated. But the destruction of the new tower can have far more serious consequences than the destruction of the previous one. Then the matter ended up with people losing a single language, which made communication more difficult in the future.

Now the case can generally turn into a complete loss of the opportunity to communicate, that is, to exchange information that can be trusted. And the loss of communication can mean only one thing – the death of humanity as such. How this could happen physically is hard to say. Most likely, there will be an incredible surge in violence: from wars to simple domestic intolerance to each other.

Of course, this is a bleak forecast. It may not come true. Moreover, we are still capable to influence the situation. There is no global recipe, but one can, for example, pay more attention to media literacy, covering various strata of the population.

The most important thing is to return to information hierarchy. At the dawn of electronic communications, public broadcasting was invented: the media that society holds and controls in order to obtain accurate, reliable and balanced information. And for a long time these media played an extremely important role.

Perhaps we should think about something like this, because in the current information chaos we need beacons for proper navigation. It is a kind of journalistic renaissance. In the end, the truth exists, and it must be unearthed.

In conclusion, there will be one example from the past.

A Facebook user found a text by Friedrich Engels about terrorist attacks in Britain in 1883-1885, when several explosions hit London. Engels rather bluntly accused Russia. The Russian authorities, according to Engels, will go to any lengths to achieve their goals. Russia was trying to make England extradite some troublemakers, who had been given asylum, he said, and that was kind of pressure on London. But thanks to a Scotland Yard investigation, it turned out that the terrorists were Irish. The newspapers told about it, and people trusted them.

In general, one way to combat devastation of the information world is to restore confidence in the professional media as an instrument for modern society to stay informed.

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