Post truth as a symptom of civilizational recovery

Let’s try to imagine a dialogue between an average American internet user and an Iranian one. What other subjects than, probably, characteristics of a new gadget can they meaningfully discuss without falling into a conflict? There is one important caveat to understand what we will consider further on: they both are middle-aged well-educated English-speaking individuals who use a popular social network for communication.

Politics? Highly unlikely, since they belong to utterly different political systems. Religion? Hm, most probably, the Iranian networker could be not against such a topic to discuss, if the religion is no other but Islam. But once an average American is barely a Muslim, the topic is irrelevant.

Culture? This is really a wide field where even very different people can find an event or a phenomenon that is equally close to everybody. What about the latest heroic blockbuster from Marvel? The American guy could share a lot of personal impressions about it. But the very chance that his Iranian vis-a-vis has ever heard anything about the Marvel Universe could hardly be bigger than zero.

What else can we propose to our respondents to discuss? Everyday habits (cuisine, for instance, without mentioning pork, however)? Probably, such a topic might be viable in our case since the existing civilizational diversity implies many interesting anthropological discoveries for both our communicators.

But why do we try to imagine such a conversation? What is the core problem in finding a consistent international discourse for us? Conventional wisdom suggests that something very ridiculous is available in our difficulties to imagine an ordinary dialogue between two persons who live on this planet in the 21st century. The frequency with which the word “global” is used in the present media should instil a casual attitude towards mental barriers in every internet user. And yet it is pretty hard to perceive the contemporary humankind as a well-unified global community facing no hurdles in communication via virtual networks.

Despite numerous possible reasons for painful frictions that we can detect in the contemporary online routine, a fundamental single cause for all of them should exist. Analytical thinking inherited from the era of technical and scientific progress makes us looking for such a cause. Do we need to know a deep truth about the stuff making seemingly triumphant globalism not so global? Even if only a few of us might consider this important, another intellectual exercise won’t hurt.

Truth be told, the very “truth” is an expensive product today. And it is becoming more and more expensive day after day. Almost nobody will tell you the truth free of charge. The following few pages about why it is so can help us better comprehend the “evil” cause for communicative problems in the present era of post truth.

Nobody can detect the exact period when the truth starts losing its solid framework. The first assumption that something wrong was with the media discourse appeared in the middle 1960s in France. Existentialism was on the hype in Paris those days. A famous philosophical book “The society of the spectacle” with anticipations about the post-truth society was published in 1967 for the first time. That was the days of booming television. Reporters from various TV channels were gradually becoming the most influential force for mass consciousness.

Even though computer-animated special effects would be invented much later, existentialists have detected a general direction to where the modern mass media were approaching. Media news started leaving a cold tone of factual reports for a more dramatic style of broadcasting. Thrillers were gaining momentum in the cinema back then and TV producers smelled a new trend clearly.

Sensations and scandals have been known as bread and butter for news media for decades, but the capabilities of television have created unprecedented coverage of the audience. The then communication technologies were far from today’s Facebook, but student demonstrations erupted in mass all over Western Europe with the help of the modern mass media. France was just one step from socialism in the late 1960s.

The present days might seem a full manifestation of what “The society of the spectacle” was about. A clear cut between facts and fiction has disappeared. No one can confidently distinguish a real event from a performance scene. A global blogosphere is a stage on which the world population participates in scenarios having oftentimes nothing common with what happens in reality.

The reality itself is losing unshakable certainty being attacked by fake news created upon fictional narratives.

The present capabilities of information technologies provide a paradox: on the one hand, verification of facts is leveraged by the widest ever accessibility to any data, but on the other hand, the speed of data multiplication deprives us of checking each particular event for authenticity.

The avalanche of streaming info saturates our consciousness with data so badly that the identification of a particular event is becoming more and more difficult. What do we do to highlight a certain piece of content in a huge mass of virtual happenings? Barely explainable subconscious reactions of our attention distinguish one event from the other on behalf of us in most cases (hand on heart).

Any separate event on the internet is staying in a quantum superposition among numerous neighbouring pieces of information until our attention picks it up and put it into a more or less certain framework. The infamous uncertainty that hurts many of us in our day-to-day routine is rooted in our informational promiscuity, by the way. What can be a clearer sign of the post-truth times than the present information overload where we have to rely on our own intuition in recognizing what is true and what is not? And the latter is not even compulsory.

Today, the global population seems to be divided into two large groups. One of them creates news, another one consumes and shares what arrives from the infosphere without any serious fact-checking. After that, both groups exchange their places and the cycle repeats itself. It looks like the next stage of mass involvement in content creation. Nothing similar could be imagined in a pre-digital era. The visionary existentialists of the 1960s were hardly capable of recognizing the weird pathways by which the evolution of media occurred. Now we can see rather a fairground where both suppliers and consumers of content are hardly distinguishable than a spectacle.

Being grounded on two main pillars — “like” and “repost” the contemporary social networks provide users with a unique opportunity to become the authors of what they come across in the infosphere. All we need is just to share content without a necessity to create it on our own. A ton of nonsense is migrating, therefore, from account to account every moment. But the very same modus operandi “no authors / all are authors” allows us not to bear any responsibility for whatever we post. “I simply repost what I like”. What a relief! The truth? No, never heard.

The only honest answer to the question of why we do what we do is that sharing of content entertains us badly. The more information appears publicly available, the less boring our routine becomes. Both the origin and quality of information do not matter too much. Moreover, pure facts are tedious unless being wrapped in fascinating narratives. Traditionally, facts belong to the realm of academic science which is getting obsolete.

The postmodern discourse sees science as a non-compulsory option among all the other our beliefs. You may believe in gravitation as in a scientific theory described by Sir Isaac Newton. Nobody is against gravitation if it helps you feel good. If a contrary theory of the world ether provides you with the same effect, feel free to deny gravitation, who cares. Both doctrines are a matter of discourse, not facts.

Philosophically speaking, the question “what is a fact” has its roots in physics where the question “what is an event” remains actual even today. Who can detect where one particular event ends and another one starts? Physicists were looking for the so-called atomic fact for decades before quantum theory got the upper hand. Now, it is routinely accepted that no distinct events are available. There is an ever-changing intensity of vibrations on the endless field of opportunities. An increasingly popular hypothesis about an array of choices within a multi-universe goes in line with the ancient Chinese teaching which states that nothing but constant changes exist. Indeed, contemporary physics is closer to postmodern discourse than any other hard science is.

That’s why we may talk about conditional events only: something happens somewhere. And this is really encouraging, such an uncertainty unties our hands.

Getting back to our main point about the post-truth in media, we should figure out who sets the tone for today’s information flows. Not official media but blogging platforms along with social networks do. A strong network effect helps bloggers oppose official media channels associated with state propaganda. Numerous self-proclaimed experts and sofa journalists use their right for freedom of speech to debunk everything the official channels might talk about. Thus, rebuttals to retractions emerge as a circular self-evolving process where any actual event is nothing but another news opportunity. It is not a big problem even if no newsworthy events are available. Once nobody knows exactly what an event is, anybody can create news from thin air.

Do bloggers have evil intentions towards their audience when tons of garbage fall out from their content?

Not at all. They simply do what they can in order not to disappear from our screens. And the truth is irrelevant when millions of “likes” and “reposts” determine the very purpose of the blogging activity.

It seems we start realizing why gears of the post-truth are so profusely lubricated with fake news. The contemporary global audience is so large that all available news creators merely lack more or less notable events happening beyond the Internet. The “real” life happens to be disappointingly scarce with incidents. Bloggers have little choice but to follow the famous quote of Voltaire “ If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him”. Newsmakers must leverage their creativity to catch our attention.

But even though the audience is huge, the army of newsmakers is never small as well. Competition is always severe. A declined rating is literally a death sentence for any “professional” blogger. That’s not an exaggeration: the very existence of any virtual phenomenon depends completely on its availability in public discourse. Out of sight, out of mind, as we know. And, of course, anything goes in a struggle for existence. The post truth appears indispensable for everyone who generates content these days. It is a combination of a medium and a vehicle through which any discourse becomes almost unlimited. Do we really need to put it in a box?

Anyhow, no conventional approaches to the problem of post truth would work. Nothing hints at any reverse trend in how content tends to be created. Criticism is powerless against fake-news sources. Who cares which channel Donald Trump will call fake news next time? We are very tolerant of those who can professionally titillate us. Even if we, sometimes, catch our favourite news feed in a lie, we just shake our heads repeating that no saints are present in the room. Besides, bottomless Google is always available for the very dedicated truth seekers.

Younger generations refuse to take the news in a way their parents did it in the past. Today, many people perceive news as a sequence of events having ephemeral probability. And they find no problem with it. If a strategic agenda of a news channel is changed from informing to entertaining, nobody cares how true its content is. Moreover, the more thrilling a piece of questionable information becomes, the bigger the number of “likes” and “reposts” it gains. A higher rating determines a larger audience. If the majority accept a broadcasted event as real, the event has to be real no matter how far it stands from the truth in fact. In the post-truth world, only the audience validates the authenticity of any event.

In such a context, “deepfake” technology as the newest illustrative phenomenon of the post-truth era is worth considering. Nobody knows exactly why it is in demand. But common logic suggests that a certain part of the global audience seeks much stronger effects from the internet content. Nihilism along with sarcastic irony inherent in deepfake videos is more impressive than any credibility.

Nothing revolutionary new is in such a psychological pattern. A parallel with adult movies seems to be appropriate here. If ordinary fake news is something like softcore erotica, the deepfake videos can be equated to hardcore porno. Indeed, what is too deviant for some is too innocent to others. But if we put aside subjective preferences, what will remain for objective analysis? Economics will, undoubtedly.

Namely, the free market dictates what product is to be in demand at one or another moment. If we are watching deepfake videos today, the time for them has come. But as in the case with porno and erotica, unlikely deepfake can replace non-processed videos completely. Deepfake clips will occupy a specific niche in the media market. It will be just another movement in the postmodern culture tailored to meet special needs.

Of course, a chance the deepfake technology can reach mass adoption is not excluded. It is cheap and simple: there are many tutorials on how to make deepfake clips on YouTube. Many people could use it either for fun or for satisfying their personal vanity. It might even bring a certain therapeutic effect as a stress-reduction technique. For example, a teenager with low self-esteem could virtually appear a Marvel superhero. What could be cooler than to feel like Captain America even for awhile?

Another positive role of deepfake is in demonstrating that literally everything and everyone can be easily fabricated in a postmodern infosphere. Deepfake technology paradoxically reveals the truth about the post-truth nature of the contemporary internet. The fake-news segment will never disappear from the global network once we live in an evolving environment of self-multiplying newsworthy discourses. There is nothing we can do about a more intensive infestation of new post-truth narratives. And, most probably, nobody will try to change the situation because everyone has a deep subconscious understanding that it is merely impossible.

Each of us implies a multifaceted identity residing both online and offline. Multiple micro-identities in the form of our social profiles, nicknames, and even bank accounts constitute our profiles whose organic environment is nothing but the internet with its diversity of interpretations of the truth. We can arbitrarily change our gender, age, wealth status, profession, and many other social qualifiers. Does this mean we deceive all the others?

No, it doesn’t. We are trying to fit into the interpenetrating fields of social interactions. In doing so, we resist the solid taken-for-granted truth which implies symbolic violence at its limit. Yes, only symbolic, but violence. We offer our online images on the basis of freedom of choice: you may accept my current identity or you may refuse it, no matter. You may believe in what I am talking about, and you may not. The post truth does not mean fragrant falsehood by default. We just demonstrate our creativity as a special art of living in the unobtrusive virtual space where socially conditioned violence is highly optional.

Various official entities claiming an exclusive monopoly for violence along with absolute truth are still far from understanding how things work on the internet. Many people who suppose the internet as a logical progression of their offline routine are dismayed by the post truth. At the same time, they often tell lies to the closest relatives, they talk about the events that never happened. They expect consensus from the others without having to be ready for consensus on their own.

This is a relic of the paranoid big narratives inherent in a pre-internet era of final truths. But the time of big narratives is over. The postmodern schizoids (in a good way) who continuously deliver micro-narratives via the internet are the residents of the post-truth mediasphere. They are no crazier than the paranoid followers of big narratives of the past. They are just more flexible, ironic, and less prone to mental violence in their discourse. Who can forbid them to take social conventions easier?

Now, let’s get back to those guys from America and Iran with whom we set the problem of communication at the beginning of the present post. The fundamental cause for all frictions they might face in their dialogue has anything common with neither cultural diversity nor any sort of idiosyncrasy. Most probably, they both are still inept in what can be called “willingness to accept post-truth micro-narratives”. Otherwise, the American could be able to carry on a conversation about Islam as well as Iranian could meaningfully react on Marvel superheroes.

They are too fixated on their personal authenticities. But that’s not their fault since they both are products of the modern-age society. And it’s not about the difference between American neo-liberal capitalism and Iranian anti-liberal theocracy. Both regimes make their citizens believe in different truths while the post-truth agenda of virtual space liberates people from taking all social conventions for granted. They both are pure homo sapiens who care about their intelligent behaviour very much. They both overvalue their social biases.

In the given imaginary situation, the best they can do is to exchange opinions on something having no rigid adherence to the “reality”, on something that is closer to performance than to events. It can be a new skin for a laser rifle from a computer shooter, for example. In such a case, none of them would be willing to establish any sort of hierarchy since no social factor would be involved. In a conventional dialogue between holders of different worldviews, symbolic violence in the attempts to set up a vertical hierarchy has to appear sooner or later.

It happens because any socially conditioned discourse implies a fundamental inequality inherent in the always available social stratification no matter which particular society is considered. Thus, any international dialogue is a fight between parties even if it is camouflaged with neutral or positive connotations. In contrast to it, any supranational dialogue which can occur only between post-social individuals implies a zero-sum game, when discourse has only a horizontal dimension.

It seems we can indicate the single common cause for all possible frictions and discrepancies happening in the online conversations today. Its name is “society” with everything it implies. Namely, the vertically hierarchical structure of any society deprives people of the true unconditional tolerance to each other. Nothing but society makes people believe in various “final truths” (human rights and the like) by pushing people to take them for granted. However humane any certain society is, this is namely society that assumes the right for violence over individuals in all possible forms. Under such conditions, any discourse and any content imply paranoid narratives opposing the graceful post-truth games of schizoid micro-identities.

Can anything help improve the situation? Neither social transformations nor revolutions will work. They can provide only a vicious circle of mimicry of the lie delivered by social elites to masses. They can transform one sort of violence over individuals into another one. Any kind of social transformation is incapable of liberating people from solid structures of vertical hierarchy. That’s why nothing but a total rejection of such a model of interactions between human species as “society” can lead to the unlimited freedom of nuclear post-social individuals.

How to achieve this? Practice suggests that no politics but communication technologies can potentially show the way out of the cage of society. The internet is a locomotive of the postmodernist train that is approaching the final station of human evolution. Fukuyama’s “end of history” is still ahead. Take your seats if missing the future is not in your plans.