Not Predicting the Future, Just Observing the Present

A lot of reviews and readers have used some variation of the phrase “frighteningly prescient” to describe Infomocracy. But it’s not.

At least not in the way they mean. (I can still hope it will be in other ways: engineers of the world, a Lumper in the near future would be great, thx!) Most people are talking about the way the book shows the power of information use in election, and how that mirrors their experiences of the 2016 US presidential race (or, sometimes the Brexit referendum).

The book was finished in 2015, and it’s called Infomocracy because that’s what it’s about: rule by information. Whoever controls what people think they know wins, and if they do it right people still think they’re making up their own minds, and even when they do it wrong its hugely disruptive. The future posited in Infomocracy has a UN-like body dealing with global information management that aggressively annotates everything from advertisements to stock photos to political promises, but data manipulation continues. The global election that is the crux of the book is disrupted through hacking and vote stealing and shady campaign practices. A government gives different groups different information about basic facts, triggering armed conflict. Sound familiar?

Here’s the thing: I wasn’t even trying to be predictive there. I was describing the political situation I saw in the present, refracted through an imagined future political system to emphasize some elements.

Information manipulation and outright lies may have become more brazen, more widespread, more effective, but it is not new. Remember the swiftboat attack on Kerry in 2004? (If not, read up.) The lessons from that experience disappeared so fast, we didn’t even remember we already had a word for what was going on in 2016. And that is just one particularly clear-cut, relatively recent example. Misinformation has been going on at least as long as politics.

I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t be angry at being lied to and manipulated. We should be furious, both about what those lies are doing to our lives right now, and about what they are doing to our democracy. But being shocked over and over about how blatant they are is a distraction from the systemic forces that make this possible. Recognizing the build up to this point can help us figure out how to start fixing it.

Not that it’s going to be easy.

 

We’ve known for years that media companies are becoming consolidated. We’ve been warned about profit-driven programming and limiting of viewpoints. Now we can see, more clearly than ever, the damaging effects this has on our democracy, and thereby on our lives. So stop watching them. Media megacorporations aren’t accountable to the truth in the way we would like our journalists to be, but they do claim to have accountability to their shareholders, or at the very least to enriching themselves. Stop watching, and tell them why. Tell their advertisers why (although maybe skip the part about how the advertisements themselves are one reason).

Even if you can’t completely resist the addiction to glossy wall-to-wall coverage, tell the networks what you want, what will keep you watching. Between Twitter and Facebook and comment pages, there are more ways to make your voice heard now than ever, and you can still call or write if that’s easiest for you. Tell them you want less money spent on hair and makeup and sets and more on investigative reporting and foreign bureaus. Complain about stories that miss the story or obscure the truth, tell them what you think of their idea of “fair and balanced,” tell them you’d rather learn how a government policy will affect you than what a celebrity thinks of it.

Do the same with online news sources and social media. Tell Facebook you don’t appreciate their algorithms reinforcing your echo chamber, and tell advertisers on Twitter you won’t click on anything off their feed until they get more responsible about abusive content. Or just log off.

Consider your local news, but consider them critically, and tell them what you think too: with a smaller audience, your comments will have more weight. Tell them you care about local stories, but that you need both those and the stories picked up nationally and internationally to be told responsibly, in context.

You don’t have to cut news entirely. There are alternatives. Watch PBS, listen to NPR, and support them both (they’re generally very good. Also, think of the tote bags). Tell them what you think too; they’re not perfect. Besides, maybe they’ll read it on the air.

Pay attention to your media literacy. Are you questioning the sources of assertions? Are there certain voices or outlets that you trust without having considered why? Advertisements are good practice for questioning other types of communications, like political speeches: are they using something unrelated to the explicit message (like music or photos) to play on your emotions? Are they playing into an existing narrative? Do the sentences they are using actually mean anything? (Surprisingly often, they don’t.) There are online media literacy courses like Mediactive, PBS TeacherLine, and Coursera (designed for non-native English speakers) if you need to brush up. UNESCO also has a primer.

Remember that news is not your only means of countering misinformation. Especially when the misinformation in question has to do with fear of difference, other kinds of narrative can help you develop the deeper contextual understanding and empathy that news coverage so often lacks. If you like to read non-fiction, read it in areas that are new to you and relevant to what’s going on (Native American history, climate science, economic history, trade, Middle Eastern politics, etc.) If you like to read fiction, look for stories by people from parts of the world or personal backgrounds that you know little about. Need a place to start? This blogger spent a year trying to read a book from every country, and lists recommendations. Check out #MuslimShelfSpace for ideas on books by Muslim writers. BookRiot has this list of recs for nationalities targeted by the travel ban. Watch documentaries and foreign films. You’re not only learning about specific issues, people, and places: you’re opening your mind and developing empathy, curiosity, and alternative narrative tropes, and those are exactly the skills you need when living in an infomocracy.

Malka Older is a writer, humanitarian worker, and PhD candidate at the Centre de Sociologie des Organisations studying governance and disasters. Named Senior Fellow for Technology and Risk at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs for 2015, she has more than eight years of experience in humanitarian aid and development, and has responded to complex emergencies and natural disasters in Uganda, Darfur, Indonesia, Japan, and Mali. Her debut novel was 2016’s Infomocracy. Its sequel, Null States, publishes this September.

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