July 18, 2014

Sham Universe: Notes on the Disappearance of Reality in a World of Hallucinations




Note: This is a slightly condensed version of a paper I presented earlier this week in Ottawa, Canada, at a conference entitled “Jacques Ellul, 20 Years On: Communicating Humanly in an Age of Technology and Spin.

Let me begin by stating clearly where I’m coming from regarding Jacques Ellul: I’m among those who consider him a genius.  I suppose that’s a safer statement to make here than it might be in some other venues. 
I’d like to recall today some of the things Ellul said more than fifty years ago about technology and propaganda in order to assess how his observations on those subjects might apply today. I think Ellul would be saddened by the degree to which technology and propaganda have come to dominate politics and culture in these early decades of the 21st century. I don’t think he would be surprised.
My observations will concern what’s happening in the United States because that’s the only locality I feel qualified to assess. Obviously much of what is happening in the States is happening at the same time and in roughly the same fashion in other countries.  
Allow me to set the table, so to speak, with two comments of Ellul’s, one from The Technological Society, the other from Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes. 



In The Technological Society he wrote that the distortion of news represents the first step toward "a sham universe," a step that leads progressively and inevitably to "the disappearance of reality in a world of hallucinations." In Propaganda he wrote that “Nothing is worse in times of danger than to live in a dream world.” 
I think it’s clear that we’ve moved significantly closer to the realization of a “sham universe” today than we were when Ellul published The Technological Society in 1954.  I think it’s also clear that it’s become very easy today to live in a dream world, and that many people do. Both developments have been brought to you courtesy of the inexorable expansion of technology.  
This is decidedly not the view shared by many technological enthusiasts. They believe that the access we have today to virtually unlimited amounts of information has made it easier than it ever has been for the average citizen to ascertain the truth while at the same time making it more difficult for politicians and others in positions of power to obscure it.  
In some circumstances it’s true that the Internet and other media can expose us to enlightening, empowering information. However, it’s also true that the Internet and other media can expose us to vast amounts of misinformation, thereby encouraging us to base our opinions and behaviors on distorted perceptions of reality. This has profound implications for the future of governance and society. 
Ellul stressed repeatedly that the pejorative connotation attached to the word “propaganda” obscures how we really feel about it.  We think we don’t like propaganda, that we don’t want to be subjected to it. To the contrary, Ellul said, propaganda has achieved the power it has precisely because we so desperately need it.

"There is not just a wicked propagandist at work who sets up means to ensnare the innocent citizen,” Ellul wrote. “Rather, there is a citizen who craves propaganda from the bottom of his being and a propagandist who responds to this craving.”


Why do we need it? Simply put, because propaganda helps us survive. Another thing Ellul stressed repeatedly is that human beings are not cut out for the pressures imposed by life in the technological society. Technique helpfully offers us various means of coping with those stressful conditions. It does so because, at this point at least, human beings are still needed to help keep the gears of the machines turning, and we can’t do that if we crack under the strain. Propaganda is a prop deployed to keep us at our stations. 
What, exactly, does propaganda offer the harried citizen of the technological society?  Many things. 
Most practically, it provides a sorting tool. Propaganda tells us what’s worth paying attention to. This is a key reason why propaganda has become steadily more important in the era of the Internet. Information is power, we’re told, but for most of us wading through the volume of information available today is an overwhelming challenge, one that at some point we simply decline to take on.


Propaganda takes advantage of this situation by giving us pre-digested packages of pre-selected information. It may not be comprehensive or balanced information, but it’s all we have time for. What matters is that it’s manageable. It’s a life raft to cling to in an information tsunami.
“It is a fact,” Ellul wrote in 1962, “that excessive data do not enlighten the reader or the listener; they drown him. He cannot remember them all, or coordinate them, or understand them; if he does not want to risk losing his mind, he will merely draw a general picture from them. And the more facts supplied, the more simplistic the image.”
As pressing as our need for information manageability might be, there’s a far deeper need that propaganda satisfies: the need of individuals living in the technological society for reassurance of their value as human beings. 
The technological society is a society of depersonalization, an ongoing assault on individual identity. Our daily experience is corrosive. In a thousand ways we’re made to feel anxious, lonely, ignored. We become, Ellul said, “diminished.” 
Propaganda offers an antidote to our diminishment. It tells us that we know things and that what we know matters. That we matter. As Ellul put it, propaganda "justifies" us. Bolstered by propaganda, he said, the individual can look down from the heights upon daily trifles, secure in the knowledge that his opinion, once ignored or actively scorned, has become “important and decisive.” 


The implications of this for democracy are profound. If what we seek from the news is existential reassurance rather than accurate information on which to base our opinions and decisions, we have a problem. 
Obviously human beings have always been prone to confirmation bias—as Paul Simon put it, a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.  But even though we have access in contemporary culture to a far more diverse range of influences and experiences than ever before, technology allows us to shut much of that diversity out, immersing ourselves in an all-encompassing confirmatory environment much as we immerse ourselves in a warm bath. It also gives us the motivation to immerse ourselves as often and as thoroughly as possible. 

At the same time propaganda offers opportunities to find others who feel the same way we do, and opportunities to join with them in mutually-reinforcing groups. In a technological environment of alienation and isolation, propaganda can bind us to a community. But these are highly selective rather than diverse communities. They are actively, aggressively disinterested in sharing discussion and views with members of other communities. The point is affirmation, not an exchange of ideas. This leads, Ellul said (again, in 1962), to “an increasingly stringent partitioning of our society.” The more propaganda there is, he added, “the more partitioning there is.” 



So it is that we live in a time when, despite the availability of unprecedented amounts of information, massive public delusions—climate change denial, the missing Obama birth certificate, the fear that vaccinations can promote autism in children, the belief that Saddam Hussein of Iraq was involved in the 9/11 terrorists attacks, to name a few examples—can flourish and successfully resist any attempt at refutation, no matter how well documented.

“Effective propaganda needs to give man an all-embracing view of the world,” Ellul said. “The point is to show that one travels in the direction of history and progress.” This all-embracing view of the world, he added, “allows the individual to give the proper classification to all the news items he receives; to exercise a critical judgment, to sharply accentuate certain facts and suppress others, depending on how well they fit into the framework.” 


There's one more of Ellul’s points on propaganda I’d like to discuss today, and that's what he called “sociological propaganda.” 
In contrast to propaganda aimed at convincing people on a specific issue, sociological propaganda articulates a much more general collection of beliefs and assumptions that define for an entire society what is considered normal, acceptable, desirable, and beyond question. Sociological propaganda is promulgated by all forms of media, especially entertainment television and advertising, by Sunday sermons, by bumper stickers on cars, and by the kinds of cars that carry the bumper stickers. It speaks out from the products on the shelves of supermarkets and department stores and from the mouths of the people we pass on the street as well as from the style of their clothes and the style of their haircuts.
Ellul called sociological propaganda “propaganda as integration” and “a propaganda of conformity.” It seeks to stabilize, unify and reinforce the status quo, and to provide a plausible rationale for the status quo. It helps create, he said, “a general climate, an atmosphere that influences people imperceptibly without having the appearance of propaganda; it gets to man through his customs, through his most unconscious habits…it is a sort of persuasion from within.”
This description reminds me of one of my favorite Ellulianisms from The Technological Society“Technique doesn’t terrorize. It acclimates.” 


Sociological propaganda in our current state of hyper-capitalism is where we see the power of technology come fully into its own. Technology enables an unprecedented degree of immersion in the fundamental message that everything that matters is defined by what you own and what you consume.  
Indeed, the entire technological society can be viewed as a form of propaganda promoting the absolute normalcy of— you guessed it—the technological society.  Thus anyone who doesn’t own a car, a television set, a computer, or a smartphone is viewed as an oddball and a loser.  A Luddite. 
When I first sent [conference organizer] Randal Marlin a summary of what I intended to talk about today, he suggested I might want to include some “prescriptive” remarks, some suggestions on how the deleterious trends the paper as a whole describes might be countered. Those who have read The Technological Society are aware that Ellul specifically declined in that book to offer remedies for the deleterious trends he so powerfully described. Those who have read Ellul’s theological works know that he looked to miracle for hope and the possibility of redemption. 
I no longer consider myself a religious person, and among those who know me I’ve earned my own reputation as a pessimist. Thus I’ll limit my prescriptive remarks to a couple of very simple, very obvious suggestions.


Tell the truth to power, as often and as convincingly as you can. Don’t buy the myth that there isn’t any truth, and don’t be afraid to decline propaganda’s invitations to integration and passivity. 
One contemporary myth I find especially annoying is the self-congratulatory mantra of aspiring tech billionaires in Silicon Valley who vow that the new platform or new app they’re developing will be truly “disruptive.” All they’re really setting out to disrupt, of course, is a business model whose profits they hope to appropriate for themselves. They’re bravely disrupting one product—one form of self-indulgent consumerism, usually—with another.  That’s not what I call a revolution. 
So, my prescriptive advice is this: Be truly disruptive. Make some noise. Cause some trouble. Do whatever you can to free yourself and those around you from the web of dreams and lies the technological society so relentlessly spins. 
 As I said, I’m no longer religious, but I’ll close with a story from the Bible. 
Jesus has gone to pray in the garden of Gethsemane. The disciples are supposed to keep watch, but they can’t keep their eyes open. They fall asleep.  Soldiers enter the garden, arrest Jesus, and take him away.
The message is clear: This is no time to be caught napping. 
“Nothing is worse in times of danger than to live in a dream world.”
Note: After I presented this paper, a young man in the audience raised his hand and accused me of offering, in my prescriptive advice, "boomer" suggestions ("Speak truth to power" was one he mentioned) that would be harmful rather than helpful to the students he teaches today. What they need more than anything, he said, is love. Given the circumstances, he wasn't able to articulate his objections in any detail, and I was unable to offer any substantive response. I'm trying to contact the young man so that we can have a more nuanced exchange of views online. I'll post here the results of the discussion I hope we'll be able to have.








July 11, 2014

In Praise of the Multiplex


“People say it’s sad to be deceived. 
Not at all — it’s far sadder not to be deceived.”

                                                        Erasmus, In Praise of Folly








July 2, 2014

Digital Dualism and the Cannibal Cop, Continued


Gilberto Valle

[[ See Amendment at end for clarification of the original version of this essay. ]]


Score one for digital dualism. The Cannibal Cop is free.

As I explained in this space last year, the twisted imagination of New York City police officer Gilberto Valle — aka “the Cannibal Cop” — provided a lurid opportunity to examine the question of where the line can be drawn between fantasy and reality in the era of the Internet.

To recap: By chance one day, Valle’s wife happened to sneak a peak at the browser history on her husband’s computer. She discovered to her horror that for some time he’d been engaged in a series of online chats in which he discussed detailed plans to rape, torture, murder, dismember, cook and eat a number of women he knew, including her.  A computer-forensic examiner subsequently found evidence that he had searched the web for human meat recipes.

Valle was arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping, a felony that could have put him in prison for life. At trial prosecutors argued that, although no woman was ever attacked, by making plans to carry out the deeds he’d discussed online, Valle had “crossed the line” between fantasy and reality. The jury was convinced, and for the past year and a half Valle has been incarcerated in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, his sentencing on hold pending appeal.


On Monday Valle won his appeal, and yesterday he was released. Judge Paul Gardephe of Federal District Court ruled that, contrary to the prosecution’s argument, at no point did Valle’s crimes exceed the bounds of “fantasy role play.”

“Despite the highly disturbing nature of Valle’s deviant and depraved sexual interests,” Judge Gardephe wrote, “his chats and emails about these interests are not sufficient — standing alone — to make out the elements of conspiracy to commit kidnapping.”

This affirmed the argument made during the trial by Valle’s defense attorneys. As one of them put it yesterday, Valle “is guilty of nothing more than very unconventional thoughts. But, as Judge Gardephe has validated, we don’t put people in jail for their thoughts.”

My blog post last year characterized the positions of the prosecution and the defense in the case as representing in fairly clear fashion the topographies of “digital dualism’ as defined by the best-know critic of that stance (and coiner of the term) Nathan Jurgenson. To think that there is some fundamental distinction between online reality and offline reality, Jurgenson argues, is to construct a false dichotomy.  In truth, the digital and the physical are “enmeshed.” We carry our offline selves into our online encounters and vice versa.

Although they presumably didn’t know it, the jurors who convicted the Cannibal Cop affirmed Jurgenson’s view. Judge Gardephe’s decision rejected it. No doubt questions over where the line exists between online fantasy and offline reality will continue. I personally believe there is such a line — I confess, I’m a digital dualist — but I don’t doubt that by spending more and more time absorbed in our devices, we will increasingly be unable to distinguish between the two.

Amendment added:

After I'd posted this, I got a nice message from Nathan Jurgenson telling me that I had overplayed his definition of digital dualism. He never meant to argue, he says, that there is no difference between digital reality and physical reality.

As I told Nathan in reply, I think I failed to adequately explain my own take on the digital dualism question, which is an existential one. That is, the ideas, convictions, and conceptions we project out into the real world, in our behaviors, are based on or derive from a consciousness that tends to blur fantasy and reality, more so than ever with the help of the Internet. Nathan responded that this is completely in line with his own thinking.

I probably should add an admission that I couldn't resist the temptation to use the Cannibal Cop case to play around a bit with these questions, and maybe its sensationalism doesn't bear too serious a look at the digital dualism issue.

Thanks to Nathan for the correction!





June 8, 2014

Ellul on big data, circa 1965


 
It is a fact that excessive data do not enlighten the reader or the listener; they drown him. He cannot remember them all, or coordinate them, or understand them; if he does not want to risk losing his mind, he will merely draw a general picture from them. And the more facts supplied, the more simplistic the image.
Jacques Ellul, Propaganda, 1965






Neil Postman on what we haven't understood about technology



Public consciousness has not yet assimilated the point that technology is ideology.
 Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death









June 7, 2014

"Now, what I want is Facts."



Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.” 
Charles Dickens, Hard Times






 

June 2, 2014

To rediscover fear and trembling




Our world, so completely stripped of its taboos, must voluntarily establish new ones to match the new types of power it possesses. We must understand that we have ventured very far, and must relearn to understand that there is such a thing as "too far."...We must rediscover fear and trembling and, even without God, awe of what is holy. There is work enough to be done this side of the boundary we should be setting ourselves.
Hans Jonas,  1985