As Real As It Gets
Our world through screens
Incentives for us to believe in conspiracy will increase while the costs remain low. But at the societal level, the growth in conspiracy and misinformation will increasingly tear at our shared understanding of reality yielding negative effects. The end of our current sense of community and the advance of technology will make agreeing on the truth hard, and fighting the climate crisis even harder. Conspiracy is a loose term in what follows, ranging from specific theories like those surrounding the Denver Airport to broader viewpoints such as the denial of climate change.
The pandemic and resulting recession have only accelerated the loss of community for the average American in 2020. We all want to identify with a group and belong to something larger than ourselves. For most of human history we’ve found this through various institutions grounded in relationships. These have ranged from the Church to Parent Teacher Associations. But our full embrace of capitalism and it’s by-products of secularism and individualism have slowly killed both our collective belief in institutions and the institutions themselves. Privatization and the deification of the Consumer have left us alone in a void where our interactions are mostly just transactions. Then once we consider obscenely high income inequality, skyrocketing healthcare costs, and never-ending student debt, the situation becomes distressingly bleak. What remains are isolated, sick, tired, and uninformed human spirits. And to top it all off, most people are unaware that this is a result of the system. The very rules we’ve been sold as crucial to our success are in fact the tools of our own undoing.
Given the context, it’s easy to see the allure of engaging in conspiracy theory and the misinformation that it produces. Going deep into any of these theories, and there are plenty, helps counteract our lived reality. It’s easier to believe that specific individuals control the world as opposed to a shapeless system that’s neither inherently good or bad. Conspiracy also provides distraction and entertainment. Scouring images for evidence that the government is hiding aliens has its own particular dopamine release. Furthermore, conspiracy is innately shareable in nature. Social media provides an easy way to join a group and find a new sense of community. Anyone can start investigating and spreading the message of whatever theory strikes their fancy. Believing in a conspiracy immediately creates an us vs. them mentality. There’s a higher calling in revealing the “truth” to newcomers while bonding over evidence of the sinister plot.
At the individual level, this is all quite beneficial. A sense of purpose, a source of entertainment, a way to make new friends, and an explanation for a difficult life…what’s not to like? If that weren’t good enough, the costs of engaging in such groups is low. Online anonymity affords unlimited opportunity to indulge with little real world consequence. That isn’t to say there are zero consequences. Believing that COVID-19 is a hoax has impacts on real lives. Outside of certain specific examples though, the feedback loop for most theories is incomplete or too longterm to matter. I could believe the Earth is flat for the rest of my life as long as I don’t try to launch myself into space using that theory.
While for any given individual the pros might outweigh the cons, for a society conspiracy and misinformation create genuine harms. Anti-Vaxxers are not only putting their own children at risk, but also the children of everyone else. No good comes from the continued existence of such beliefs. And when someone with political power within our society falls prey to a false belief, the consequences can quickly scale in magnitude and reach. Even a small percentage of the population believing in harmful theories can result in bad outcomes for everyone.
The vaccine example is cut and dry but the more kooky theories may ultimately be the bigger threat. If people more and more believe in different conceptions of our world, our shared understanding of what is real becomes increasingly difficult to maintain. If climate change was not an existential level threat that might be ok. But climate change is really real and averting disaster requires global level cooperation. If we cannot come to agreement on what is true and what is false, there is no pathway to solving the problem. Collective effort demands a collective understanding. While climate denial may fade out of existence, that doesn’t mean we will all believe the same set of facts. It’s not just Conservatives who are susceptible to conspiracy, Liberals can fall prey as well. Meaningful progress maybe stymied not only because key individuals subscribe to a false belief, but also because the cost of proving the truth becomes too expensive. Immediate harms in believing conspiracy theories get attention today, but in the end it’s the loss of efficiency and the shredded sense of shared reality that will take the highest toll.
At this juncture where the benefits for believing in conspiracy are already diverging between individuals and society, our current trajectory seems poised to make the problem even worse. Increasingly we are living our lives in digital spaces while losing connection to the physical world. This trend will continue and in this highly digitized existence, our ability to distinguish real from fake will become nearly impossible.
Our economic system today is based on the separation of ourselves from the natural world. The result of this system is the climate crisis which will make the separation permanent. As our loss of connection to the real world solidifies, we’ll increasingly spend our lives in digital spaces. The life of a Californian in 2020 simultaneously dealing with the pandemic and wildfires serves as an eerie premonition. InstaCart for groceries. UberEats for takeout. Disney+ for new movies. Fortnite for concerts. Facebook for news. Messaging apps for family and friends. Zoom for work. Peloton for working out. Amazon for everything else. There’s little need to leave the house. A blessing in one sense, but a curse in the long run. Interactions with the outside world will happen almost exclusively through smartphones, TVs, and VR headsets. And if the life of a 2020 Californian isn’t convincing enough, just consider the amount of time children spend on screens these days. This digital future, where bits are more important than atoms and information spreads instantaneously, will serve as the fertile soil for conspiracy and misinformation to grow even further.
Digital space is fertile soil because humans are easy to trick. We’re bringing 35,000 year old brains into a realm that improves exponentially every year. Our ability to distinguish between what is real and what is fake is disappearing before we can blink. These deepfakes are scarily convincing. This article written by the GPT-3 model was voted to the number one spot on Hacker News. Most of the Mandolarian was filmed in a single circular room. When reality is hard to parse and information spreads freely, building a following for anything becomes easier. Furthermore if we’re all inside our own personal digital realms and no longer capable of sticking our heads outside to check the truth then what we see online only grows in its persuasiveness.
Fake news isn’t new. But as its quality rises, constantly proving the truth becomes more and more expensive. Consider Trump’s video from Walter Reed during his COVID-19 diagnosis. Some people quickly speculated that the video was a deepfake. The specter of falsehood will require increasingly onerous verification. Again this matters because armed with the ability to fake any piece of data, it becomes that much quicker to scale up belief in any particular conspiracy. And that much more difficult to disprove it. If someone has ten “corroborating” videos of a prominent scientist admitting that GMOs cause cancer along with 200,000 people who also believe it, are they wrong? How can we convince those people that they might be incorrect? This is our current problem of echo chambers but ten times more insidious. Even if only a few people believe a deepfake, its existence casts doubt onto the truth. The stain of uncertainty becomes permanent.
As our sense of community continues to wither and more of our lives become mediated by screens, there’s little chance that we don’t fall into one conspiracy theory or another. The incentives are too strong and our ability to ascertain the truth too weak. As a society this is terrifying. Fighting climate change demands vigorous agreement on what is actually taking place. And there’s no room for inefficiency in getting to consensus. Keeping our shared sense of reality from shattering while leaving resources to spare for the actual fight against the climate crisis will be the greatest test of our time. We’re headed towards a reality where we will each live in our own little world while the one actual Earth we share heads towards catastrophe.