There’s a dangerous contradiction inherent to the Information Age, and one that’s pushing extreme ideologies to the fore. Our access to information vastly outpaces our ability to interpret it, and that dichotomy is having disastrous effects. Many times you have come across an individual online whose ideology is so alien to your own that you thought that person was living in a completely different world. When you take a look at the way information is stratified, you realize how easily we can cultivate and self-select our way into personal realities that reinforce all of our most unhealthy traits. There is no one ‘Earth’, but rather billions of similar parallel realities, defined by the wants and fears of the observers themselves.
In many ways, this is a new type of an old problem. People were always manipulable by their access to information, and propaganda always had its place. But in the past, the danger of ignorance came from the limitations of personal experience; modern extremism comes out of the overabundance of sources to choose from, and the average person’s lack of critical thinking on how best to process information from those sources.
There was a time when organized religion gave substance to important questions; cultures could easily, if not without conflict, rely on a shared system of philosophy and interpretation. As the enlightenment brought forth worldviews informed by logic and science, organized religion began a decline that has only accelerated over time. The influence of religion is by no means totally eliminated, but the advanced availability of information has inhibited the ability of power structures to deliver fully formed philosophies to population groups. God, the original and most fundamental of memes, has become just another in an endless tide of facts barraging us at all times.
Humans are inherently limited creatures. The time and processing power that we have to spend are finite, while our technological access to data is growing exponentially. All the time there is more to read, see, and hear, but less time to actually act or process information. Much as our networks of communication are becoming more sophisticated, a growing percentage of how people actually obtain information is through the most minimal, simplistic media available: memes, and twitter. However complex or multifaceted an issue actually is, the vision of it presented to us (or, more accurately, that we present to ourselves) is constantly reduced to the most attractive and easily digestible version possible.
There is an attraction to simplicity, but a dangerous one. When facts are simple, it’s easy to feel vindicated in what you believe. It’s easy to convince yourself that you are in the right and your opponents insane, and saves you the discomfort of wading into the murky realm of a world without clear moral highgrounds. It’s in becoming comfortable with ignoring nuance that we open ourselves to dogmatic, extremist viewpoints. The longer you go without challenging yourself, the more incapable you become of contending with complex issues.
The majority of people read headlines and go no further, ignoring the substance by which they could create a developed worldview. A few words without context or explanation, and people genuinely believe that they are informed about the workings of complex political, economic, and psychological systems. Constantly awash in facts, propaganda has taken on a new form. Those with destructive agendae don’t have to lie to you to get you to believe what they want. They are comfortable doing so, and a society with atrophied critical thinking skills will make such falsehoods easy to buy, but far easier than fabricating facts is using extremely selective presentation of those facts to push people towards a philosophy. Barraging people with events, which they can understand, rather than context and interpretation, which requires more effort, you can effortlessly make the world seem however you want. If you want to demonize a group of people, highlight every time a member of that group commits a crime. Even if, for instance, undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit violent offenses than citizens, if you seek out and present every time one does, you can give the impression that they are a violent people and that violence is a regular state of being for them.
People with no common base of facts or understanding are unable to communicate, and over time the rift between ideologies has only gotten wider. As COVID forced all interactions to head online, it created a dynamic whereby each of us chose where to go for news and communication, slanting every interaction through an ideological lens. Far more consistently than in person, online communities self-segregate into smaller and more specific ideologies. As this happens, we are presented with only the most extreme and unreasonable representatives from other ideologies. You get a fake impression of what the other sides actually believe, and all interactions devolve into petty sarcasm based on fake ideas of how either person views the world, based on totally disparate sets of facts. These discussions go nowhere except into further volatility, and the worst impressions that everyone went in with are reinforced. The image you are left with is clear: anyone you disagree with is unreasonable, disconnected from reality, and only capable of communicating in the harshest possible terms. In a way this is true of everyone, but no one is able to admit it.
What makes this all so difficult is how it relates to our instincts. It’s a constant effort to challenge yourself not to sink into the comfort of simplicity, and to understand that you can be wrong about anything. As human beings we are able to rationalize anything to ourselves, and we are eager to do so. I was once speaking to a researcher in heuristics, which are (to use an extremely simplified definition) the methods by which we simplify and correlate information to make it usable to us. He said “you would expect that more intelligent people don’t make bad decisions. Instead you find that they have more complicated reasons for making those bad decisions.” It’s a simple defense mechanism that gives us comfort and saves effort better spent on survival. What should happen when we encounter new facts that contradict our worldview is that we rethink that worldview and try to incorporate those facts into our outlooks. What actually happens is that we find a way to ignore those facts. This walkback is constant, and given enough time it’s only natural that it would lead to the recent epidemic of conspiracy theories.
Artificial Intelligence is only making the rise of extremism worse, as well. Propagandists realized how easy it was to flood the noosphere with lies, overwhelming us with more lies than we can reasonably sort through. In fact, we have already abdicated the defense of truth itself to AI, leading to a shadow war of computers. It’s important to understand that AI are trained, imperfectly, by our responses. These machines are limited reflections of what we present to them, fractured pieces of intelligence that amplify fear and xenophobia to us constantly, growing in their own extremism all the while.
A perfect example of how easily we can generate a set of facts to fit our goals: this article. It’s full of cites from scholarly papers, well regarded news sources, and established educational institutions. Those cites are also entirely made up of what came up on the first page of my search engine queries. I chose the narrative I wanted to believe, and I received an apparently objective, well informed selection of sources telling me exactly what I wanted to hear. Suppose I were writing an article with the exact opposite opinion of my central thesis. I might not have pulled from sources that were quite as well-regarded, but whether you consider a source legitimate is also a major factor of this analysis.
If I were a less cynical, skeptical person, I wouldn’t doubt this set of information, pulled from my mind, in what I chose to search for, and Google’s first page, which is formed as an amalgam of what users have been seeking and finding. For that matter, think of how Google actually works. Yes, it searches for certain keywords, but a major factor in how results are returned is based on commonalities in how users input and retrieve data. We create furrows and rivers, paths for information to create a neural network that we only have partial control over and connection to.
What’s happening as information technology trains itself on our responses and we communicate in shorter and more abstract forms? The conscious and subconscious minds are merging together. Don Jolly of counterculture magazine encyclopedia.zone purports that we are forming a new organism. He posits that our conscious and subconscious linkages are forming plural beings; ideologies and fears lurking within our minds amplify and start getting shouted at us in infinite voices. Is it any wonder that extremism could rise in such an age? Ideologies based on impulse, on fears and anger, communicate more easily and more directly. Ideologies based in truth require nuance. They are based on complexities that inherently take more effort to encompass. If we present a fear or desire to the world, it amplifies, feeding itself back to its source and creating a loop of constantly accelerating unease. We stare constantly into the Jungian underground of our baser urges, all while convincing ourselves that these viewpoints owe their fundaments to objective fact.
What does it take to change this? Education is a part of it. The better you have an understanding of the basic workings of the world and its history, the better you can sniff out the obvious horse shit. But it takes more than that. Skepticism must be a part of anything that you read. You also have to experience the other side and how it functions. I go on extremist gathering places to hear how they see the world. It’s not an endorsement, but breaking out of my bubble is the only way I can contend with people. If I can make a quick plug for Allsides.com, I would highly recommend making it a regular part of your routine. Allsides presents major news stories and makes clear how those stories are being told across the ideological spectrum. Its front page also gives you a quick splash of what types of stories these ideologies present, which on its own provides a stark an immediate divide in how their readership views the world and their place in it. If there is any panacea, it is communication. But that communication must be consistent. It must be genuine, and it must be by those willing to question their own motives instead of sarcastically tearing down everyone else’s.
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