Maybe some chickens are coming home to roost. Tech stocks have become less irrationally exuberant. People seem annoyed about Amazon’s stunt extort bribes from cities in return for making housing more unaffordable and transit more crowded, just to attract some high-paying jobs to cities that already have a big wealth gap. UK members of parliament have grown so irritated that Facebook has ignored their inquiries that they dragged a tech startup founder who was visiting London to Parliament, forcing him to turn over documents about Facebook that he had obtained thanks to a pending lawsuit. (He just happened to be carrying copies of documents obtained through discovery on his laptop. Let that be a lesson to us all.) And whoops, turns out Facebook’s chief operating officer actually was aware that they’d hired a sleazy firm to discredit Facebook opponents, including George Soros who has become a useful all-purpose boogeyman for anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists.
There are rumblings of discontent, but it’s not at all clear how we’re going to stop the flow of alternative facts, disinformation, and spectacle that is the lifeblood of the vaporous tech industry. If their purpose is to keep us online and clicking, it’s working all too well. A disturbing double profile in the Washington Post shows two people, disaffected and out of work who spend lots of time online. One creates nonsense posts on a Facebook site to taunt those who take them seriously. The other takes them seriously as they enter a flood of links that she scrolls through. The faker makes a lot of money, with as many as six million visitors in a good month generating $15,000 in ad revenue. The retired woman who clicks to like and share his made-up stories without noticing the disclaimers gets to feel part of something important, that she’s shoring up a country that’s under attack. How can reality compete with that mission, particularly when your day-to-day reality is relatively dreary?
Of course, social media didn’t create the attractiveness of a thrilling conspiracy and the urge to connect over it. We’ve had talk radio and combative talking heads on cable news for decades. Before that we had yellow journalism and traveling medicine shows. We’ve always had gossip. But there’s something simultaneously isolating and seductive about sharing simulated outrage online using platforms built for engagement, and before long alternate facts congeal into an alternate reality.
As Mike Caulfield points out, this digital hyperreality, this time spent immersed online, becomes an experience that is more real than real life, which lacks the compelling narratives, the apocalyptic threats, the fevered dreams, the coherence. The experience the woman has as she clicks is real even if the facts that constitute that experience are false. When a man goes online to write nonsensical stories that bring in ad dollars, he’s hacking her digital reality. As Caulfield puts it, “because of the phenomenon of hyperreality, she is more likely to trust her digital experience than her non-digital experience. She simply has accumulated far more influential experiences online, and to the extent that her online experience differs from other mediated realities, it’s the non-digital that is seen as not fitting” – so a news story that contradicts her rich, interconnected digital life must be what is false.
We’ve never had a medium designed so well to immerse us in a hyperreal flow of unchecked, unverified, imaginary narratives that engage us in liking, in sharing, in commenting, in spending hours of our days following threads connecting one shocking story to another. The engineers of attention have become engineers of emotion and experience. A man sitting in a room alone writing lies can make more money than a journalist, and his stories look just as real even though he has clearly labeled them as false. We can’t fight falsehood with truth or gullibility with finger-pointing sarcasm. Given our current information infrastructure, everyone can “do the research” and choose their own reality. It’s hard to know how we’ll get out of this choose-your-own adventure because the inventors of it seem completely at a loss themselves. But these media have not been around all that long. They haven’t faced much opposition or scrutiny. That may well be changing, and none too soon.
Meanwhile, I guess we keep doing whatever we can to help our students understand information – where it comes from, how it circulates, what to make of it, and how to handle it responsibly. I don’t know what else we can do until we find a way to put some brakes on our immersive hyperreality machines.