The glorious promise of the post-truth world
By Andrew Odlyzko
Mar 2017 Issue
“Post-truth”—an adjective designated the 2016 Word of the Year by the Oxford English Dictionaries, and the related term “truthiness,” have received much public attention recently, and have inspired heated discussions of “fake news” and “alternative facts.”
In this article (spoof/parody/satire/dystopia/…, depending on how you read it), the author argues that the essential role of truthiness in human life is underestimated, and that it “is safer to embrace the inevitable and march into the brave new post-truth world.”
The crusade against truthiness is misguided. Instead of fighting the spread of the post-truth world, we should welcome it as the next stage in the evolution of human society, liberating us from the cruel constraints of cold reality. This appears to have been the mostly unspoken goal of the human race from the beginning of its existence. Modern technology finally seems to be putting it within our reach. All we need to do is disregard the naysayers and forge bravely ahead on natural paths!
Post-truth, analogous to Stephen Colbert’s concept of “truthiness,” is an adjective denoting “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” It has been designated as the Word of the Year 2016 by the Oxford Dictionaries. This honor resulted from this word’s sudden rise in prominence, prominence fed by the misplaced fears that it could damage our society.
The advocates of the war on the post-truth world do offer many beguiling arguments. The Internet was acclaimed as leading to a new age of enlightenment through easy communication and universal access to information. Instead, observers see the emergence of an increasingly polluted information environment [4, 9]. We face torrents of false or at least distorted tweets, video clips, and blog posts. We also observe the formation of many echo chambers, groups that reinforce those groups’ chosen visions, selecting what to accept as true, and amplifying each other’s biases. There are widespread fears such trends will hurt our society, especially since there is growing evidence of large organized projects to pollute social network discourse and redirect it .
This has led to calls for countermeasures. Facebook has promised to respond , and Google has already built an extension to the Chrome browser for detecting fake news. There are other burgeoning efforts to provide reliability measures for the information spreading on the Internet and through social networks [5, 10].
The argument against such efforts is very simple: They would damage our society and stifle technological progress. Post-truthism is a very natural, inevitable, and in many ways desirable stage in the evolution of human society. Even the current craze for fighting truthiness is an example of the post-truth world in action. Contrary to popular opinion, truthiness is not a novel phenomenon, it is just that recently it has intensified, and has caught increased public attention.
Over the ages, we have been freeing ourselves from physical constraints. There are more of us than ever before, we live far longer, and clothing, shelter, and food needs are becoming ever less pressing, to the point that there are more people who are obese than those suffering hunger. Human physical labor has also been declining, replaced first by animals, then by simple machines, and today increasingly by sophisticated robots.
More recently, we have started freeing ourselves from further constraints. Information technologies have been freeing us from routine mental work, and AI promises much more progress in this area.
The natural next step, after freeing ourselves from all this physical and mental drudgery, is to free ourselves from dependence on cruel, inflexible reality. We may never reach a completely post-fact world, but we can come far closer than ever before. Historically, Homo sapiens has shown a greater appetite for humbug than for facts, as Charles Mackay, P.T. Barnum, and others demonstrated long ago [1, 8]. But cold facts often intervened, whether in the shape of a saber-tooth tiger or the growling of an empty stomach. Now we can push reality much further away and live in our dream worlds.
Lest you recoil at this notion, recall just how important humbug has been to human progress. Silicon Valley is famous, among other things, for its “fake it till you make it” mantra. But this is just the most refined form of an ancient practice that has been key to the success of innumerable scientists and engineers for centuries. Promoters of new technologies usually offer promises of costs, of time to deliver, and of performance.