Is the Fifth Wave a good witch or a bad witch? (1)

good witch My concern in writing this blog is to understand the effects of the Fifth Wave of information across various domains.  This has seemed sufficiently ambitious.  Tossing out cosmic judgments would be fun but self-indulgent.  Marx’s scorn for interpreting the world in his zeal to change it has always struck me as a piece of monstrous irresponsibility – like sending a five-year-old to perform brain surgery.

Still:  we interpret so we can judge, and we judge so we can act.  A preliminary normative evaluation of the effects of the Fifth Wave might be a useful early-warning data point, like a thermometer reading of a person in uncertain health.  That’s my assumption here, in any case.  In this post, I begin to examine the attributes of the Fifth Wave and, like the gauzy Belinda in The Wizard of Oz, I will ask whether these are good or bad for us.  My standards are wholly conventional:  I believe in liberal democracy, the free market, and the dignity of the individual.  These are the fixed points of the moral compass against which I will map good and bad.

Impermanence, or Trouble in the City of Man

There is a belief that digital is forever – that naked photos of one’s youth will haunt one to the grave.  The opposite is closer to the truth.  Digital means ephemeral.  Online authority, influence, and attention fluctuate rapidly.  Websites go up, have their brief moment on the speaker’s platform, then turn mute.  Their words and images sometimes remain, fossilized, but just as often disappear.  Old links point to nothing.  Old platforms like AOL or Friendster are worthless today.  Vast volumes of email, text messages, same-time chats have vanished as if they never were.

Impermanence characterizes the erosive effect of the Fifth Wave on technology, business, and government.  It is a fact that new devices and media replace one another at a dizzying pace, compared to the spread of innovations in the past.  It is a fact that companies rise and fall at a much faster rate than a century ago.  Government is more speculative, but we have witnessed wild tumbles of the political wheel of fortune:  Barack Obama crushed the Democratic and Republican establishments in 2008, saw his ruling coalition swept away at the mid-term elections of 2010, then was comfortably reelected in 2012.  Regimes frozen solid for decades, like those in Tunisia and Egypt, suddenly melt into air.

The lack of a stable existence on earth drives some to search for fixity in a higher sphere.  Hence the appeal of religious fundamentalism:  in Egypt, the old regime was succeeded not by democratic secularism but by the Muslim Brotherhood.  Among US religions, evangelicals and Mormons have grown in numbers, while “mainline” Protestants and Catholics declined. The spread of Christianity in China is among today’s best-kept secrets.  For the governing classes and articulate elites of the world, the turn to religion is both appalling and incomprehensible – but this is a denial of human nature.  If the City of Man becomes a passing shadow, people will look to the City of God.

At the violent extreme we come to groups like Al Qaeda, whose nihilism both strikes at and embodies the spirit of the age:  there’s no more searing image of impermanence than that of the collapse, in fire and smoke, of the World Trade towers.  If such atrocities define our future, the effects of Fifth Wave will be very bad indeed.  So far, violence associated with religious fanaticism doesn’t remotely match the slaughter perpetrated by the secular fundamentalisms of the twentieth century, which arose out of the wreckage of a tradition-bound, agrarian way of life banished forever by the industrial revolution.

Our zealots are fewer and less murderous than those in our fathers’ and grandfathers’ generation.  That’s something, but not much.

It may be that the next generation – the digital natives – will be able to discern the Platonic form beneath the existential transience of our times.  They may find a home where older folks see chaos, fixity and community where their parents experience mostly disorientation and loss.  This is a hope, not a prediction.  Impermanence is not in itself a bad thing, but its effects are unsettling to the human spirit – a condition which has nothing good to recommend it, and which, in extremis, spawns the cult of death.

Uncertainty, or the Absence of Authority

Certainty depends on authority – and the defining feature of the Fifth Wave is the profaning of the temples of authority by an unruly public.  Thirty years ago, Walter Cronkite every day told us “the way it is” and the New York Times delivered “all the news that’s fit to print.”  Scientists spoke with the voice of God.  Economists uttered magic formulas to ensure prosperity.  Disputes were settled by consulting the Encyclopedia Britannica.  The world of information was shaped like a pyramid.  Those at the top decided signal from noise, knowledge from fraud, certainty from uncertainty.

That world is dead.  Today we drown in data, yet thirst for meaning.  According to a study cited by Nate Silver, we now generate 2.5 quintillion bytes of data each day.  Who can make sense of this deluge?  Not journalists, objects of the public’s contempt.  Not scientists, suspected by the public of advocacy and self-promotion.  And certainly not economists:  if the fall of the Twin Towers symbolizes impermanence, our emblem of uncertainty is the financial crisis of 2008, which saw rating agencies like Moody’s miss their risk predictions by 20,000 percent (Silver’s estimate).

The Encyclopedia Britannica?  Gone the way of the dodo.

Lack of certainty is not ignorance:  it’s a splinter of doubt festering in all we know, a loss of faith in our once-infallible sources of authority.  One worry, often voiced by the articulate elites, is that uncertainty will stampede the masses into self-referential “filter bubbles” of information, where personal biases will never be challenged:  a “daily me.”  I find no evidence to support this notion.  Rather than waste precious space debunking it, I point the reader to Yoachim Benkler’s Wealth of Networks (and to this).  It’s just not in the cards for us to remain informationally pure while navigating 2.5 quintillion data bytes each day. 

Fretting about a daily me, however, is itself an interesting symptom.

We should expect two developments to attend a time of uncertainty.  One is counter-revolution by the old institutions of authority.  In subject after subject, cloaked in moral judgments and predictions of doom, we witness attempts by accredited experts to regain mastery over the levers of epistemic closure.  Journalists warn us that democracy is impossible unless their profession thrives:  it’s the daily us, they cry, or the daily me.  Climatologists, who in private show a high degree of uncertainty about the data, in public promote the idea that “the science is settled.”  Such tricks are self-defeating.  The counter-revolution of the expert class will fail, because the experts – politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, scientists, businessmen, economists, academics – are themselves tormented by that terrible splinter of doubt.

The second development is a proliferation of honest frauds who sell certainty where none exists.  Our lives today are crowded with digital happiness peddlers, magic app solutions, online matchmakers, TV herb doctors, and talk radio Aristotles.  These fantasies fall in the “mostly harmless” category.  The majority of people dismiss them without a thought.  For the rest, faith in frauds is an expensive coping mechanism in an uncertain world.

Political polarization is probably a function of these two developments.  The “talking head sphere” tends to be dominated by members of the political class – who rightly feel disrespected – and by political shysters who pretend to knowledge they don’t possess.  To keep an audience, each must shout louder and take more aggressive positions than the other.  Uncertain life thus gets scripted into a neat partisan drama.  Every topic – fast food, the climate, a random shooting – is sharpened to inflict a political wound.  Whether US public opinion, by historic standards, has indeed become polarized remains an open question – but the noise surrounding public debate is unquestionably more brutish and dogmatic, and such posturing might be expected to have some impact on the public.

Impermanence relates to how we live, uncertainty to what we know.  Human nature rebels, sometimes violently, against a rootless existence, but it can embrace with humility the true dimensions of our ignorance.  The reality is that we don’t know very much – not with certainty.  This is not just a matter of volume or authority:  thinkers like Nassim Taleb, Paul Ormerod, and Duncan Watts have made a persuasive case about the humbling limits of human cognition in a massively complex world.

Like all strong medicine, uncertainty has side effects.  If in response we become either dogmatically partisan or radically skeptical about knowledge – and thus incurious – uncertainty will make us stupid.  If, however, we make our decisions and debate our differences knowing that we are fallible, then the splinter of doubt implanted by the Fifth Wave will turn out to be a good and healthy condition.

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