Technology has destroyed reality

  • In this age of artificial stupidity, technological disruption has turned destructive
- Hito Steyerl

Dec 7, 2018-

On June 20, 2017, the BBC evening news opener broke down. For four minutes, a breaking-news animation alternated random still pictures with tracking shots of a presenter who sat stoically in silence. The elements of the familiar sequence were jumbled, messed up and nonsensical.

The scene was the result of a technical glitch—a system crash. But it also served as an image of automation run amok, of decades of breaking news finally resulting in broken news.

The message still resonates: In this new age of artificial stupidity, technological disruption has turned destructive. Its greatest victim is reality itself.

It is a far cry from an earlier period of digital expansion, when internet communication was seen to promote global exchange and understanding. The time when the word “global” was likely to attach to the word “digital” is most definitely over. The new elites in many Western countries are no longer cosmopolitan and globalist, but rather isolationist and identitarian. Before, technology was supposed to connect and mediate. The online world seemed like a Disney vision of multiculturalism, promoting sterile tolerance from above. Now technology divides and fragments; it identifies and ranks people.

Mária Schmidt, a historian close to Hungary’s illiberal leader, Viktor Orban, argues that automation and artificial intelligence will reduce the demand for labor and thus for migration. So automation not only disadvantages local workers, but also benefits closed and homogeneous societies. It also wrecks the public conversation via bots and botnets impersonating real people, spreading viral disinformation and broken news.

This rise of artificial stupidity is the antithesis of, or rather the millions of shabby little cousins to, artificial intelligence. Just as socialism in practice has been a far cry from the glorious promises of revolutionaries, artificial stupidity is a mediocre and greedy version of the sublime machine intelligence intended to elevate and improve human life.

All sorts of minor communication applications are artificial stupidities. And though they may not seem impressive, their real-world effects are baffling: the destruction of public discourse and the polarisation of populations; wages and hours managed by algorithms; customer service, clerical, counseling or legal work eliminated by virtual assistants or chatbots.

Even simple things, such as buying a ticket for a plane, train or concert, have become arduous and frustrating chores in an era of targeted, opaque pricing. Instead of a common reality and a set of rules that apply to everyone, we have frustration, dysfunction and a waste of precious time and energy.

And automation is not alone in chipping away at modern society. The few platforms that effectively own the digital communication sphere today operate without serious checks and balances, or even basic competition in an open market. Their algorithms are proprietary and unknown. There are few alternatives, if any, for consumers.

The result is an endless cycle of broken news and quarter-truths, stretched and repurposed ad nauseam, because in the age of artificial stupidity, truth is traded for popularity and reach.

The norms of reality TV have found a foothold in the digital age. The point is not that there is no reality—the point is that it’s every fact for itself, competing against all others, while social media multiply alternative versions of it. If you don’t like the reality you are facing, there is always another one, custom-made for your preferences.

This is our real, existing digital world: nothing more than hourly waves of feverish and toxic agitation, played out over stale mainstream channels that discourage innovation and experimentation, drown in excruciating advertisements and drain people’s attention and souls.

An unpopular truth cannot survive online in such a world, because traction is privileged over veracity. And to artificially stupid automatons and algorithms, reality is defined as brute quantity, by ranking, ratings and elimination.

The truth is a piece of work with unruly and messy details that nevertheless require attention and never fully add up. It is usually much too complicated to be entertaining, and it may not be to everyone’s liking at all. It may not make things easier or more efficient—quite the opposite, in fact. If truth is not a marketable item, like clean environments or livable neighborhoods, the platforms that manage digital communication seem to show little interest in maintaining it, letting broken news propagate.

As a result, fake reports, digital rumors and conspiracy theories have moved from fringe to mainstream. They have also created a new reality. As I write this, a mob is marching through the East German town of Chemnitz, yelling anti-migrant slogans and chasing nonwhite people. They are not brandishing pitchforks; they are more likely to wield cellphones.

After all, in Germany Facebook activity correlates with white-supremacist violence. Racist gatherings are organised in a matter of hours on social media, and algorithms built into platforms amplify social division and benefit extremist organisations. Digital technology augments authoritarian movements, and the digital native segues seamlessly into the digital nativist.

Facts, on the other hand, are often quite unspectacular. They will not improve, and may even deteriorate, if they are “liked” or shared. And both facts and the truth rely on strong institutions, not consumers, to defend them: judiciaries, scientific communities, an independent press. 

It is no coincidence that all those institutions are being undermined in many countries around the world—see the rioters in Chemnitz fuming at the “lying press,” the defunding of scientific research throughout the Western world or attempts at the partisan realignment of judicial institutions, such as Poland’s Supreme Court.

There are many short-term solutions to help prevent the further onslaught of broken news. Challenging or regulating monopoly platforms is one of them. Making their algorithms transparent and open to public assessment, legislation and debate is another. We can ban bots and anonymous accounts from social media, and strengthen institutions with durable and tested rules to establish and confirm facts.

But we cannot have our factuality cake and eat it too. Truth will rarely be popular or profitable. To expect its popularity to correspond to its veracity is not even artificially stupid, but just stupid.

—© 2018 The New York Times

Published: 07-12-2018 08:02

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