Some thoughts about Ted Gioia's Signs of the Information Crap-pocalypse
Comments and observations about the state of information available to the public
I haven’t done this since my blogging days over a decade ago: I’m providing some detailed feedback to someone else’s newsletter post (back in the day it would have been a response to a blog post). In this case, I’m writing my observations and remarks to a recent post byof The Honest Broker concerning the state of news and information available to the public these days . His post is subtitled “The Age of Information has come to a brutal end—here's how it happened”.
Ted’s argument in this newsletter is well summarized by the following statement:
In the last 12 months, the garbage infows (sp?) into our culture have increased exponentially. As a result, nothing is harder to find now than actual information—which I define as “knowledge based on demonstrable or reliable facts.”
The result is a crisis of trust unlike anything seen before in modern history.
Ted then lists 30 steps that could be used to destroy access to reliable information in our society (I’m assuming Ted is referring to North America, Western Europe and possibly Australia/New Zealand, but primarily the US unless otherwise specified).
I’m going to examine each of these steps and provide my thoughts on them:
Create a society that rewards influencers more than truth-tellers—and turn every digital platform, large or small, into a boosting pad for these influencers.
My sense is that there’s been far too much power given to the digital influencer during the past decade. However, my counterbalancing sense is that many digital consumers are wising up to this and possibly making better decisions. Also, with free cash drying up over time I suspect that companies are less likely to fund this kind of marketing (professional athletes and other public figures will always have some pull here but on the other hand I wouldn’t invest in crypto just because Matt Damon pitched it).
I’m not convinced that every digital platform is a boosting pad for a certain type of individual, influencer or otherwise, but I do read various writers lamenting the changes to Twitter during the past year where it doesn’t seem to provide them the same level of reach as it used to. Are these types of writers the influencers that Ted writes about? Maybe. On the other hand, a site like Twitter certainly seemed to amplify the reach of Donald Trump… I’ll leave it at that.
Make plagiarism, cheating, and deception totally acceptable, so nobody gets fired from a media job, even for the most egregious violations of journalistic ethics.
Definitely lots of problems here. Are these toxic behaviors totally acceptable? I’m not so sure about this and I think this can vary a lot between the size of the market and the country in question. I wouldn’t say that these things are totally acceptable, not by a long shot, but there are plenty of examples of abuse. On the other hand, I can think of Jonah Lehrer as someone who was called out for fabricating quotes in one of his books - things definitely turned sour for him after that. But was he the exception rather than the rule?
Downsize all mainstream sources of information, compressing everything into a few seconds of video or a few sentences—with no context, no nuance, no alternative views allowed, or even possible.
Similar to the above, although I think that we need to realize that the adult reader needs to take some responsibility for the information that they rely upon. I do believe that more substantial news information is still out there but you’re not going to find it on streaming video or image platforms unless you look very closely and this could be changed.
Having said that, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter have certainly contributed to this problem by their focus on the short, seemly pithy video, image or Tweet.
Destroy the economics of local and regional news—transferring their ad revenues to the dominant global technocrats—so that almost every small city newspaper goes broke and grass roots reporting disappears.
Totally agree with Ted: this is the case across North America for sure and we are all much the poorer for it. My part of Canada has seen extreme media consolidation and downsizing during the past 2 - 3 decades and it got much worse in the past 2 years. I’m not sure that the money is going into the hands of the global technocrats but definitely into the hands of corporations which are far from altruistic.
Force the large respected media outlets to downsize and fire their most seasoned and knowledgeable journalists—replacing them (if at all) with poorly paid and poorly informed interns and freelancers.
Can’t argue here but I’d point out that this is not just in media, it’s in many industries.
Eliminate or marginalize anything in society that resembles a counterculture—and might possibly challenge dominants narratives and power bases.
Some countries are certainly more zealous about this than others and in larger countries marginalization varies regionally.
Unleash a torrent of crappy AI-written articles filled with errors on every subject, with no quality control or adequate fact-checking.
The only thing that’s new here is the toolset - people have been doing this throughout the history of the World Wide Web. The fear here is that automation will multiply the effects, which it certainly good.
Flood the book market with nonsensical AI-written books.
My thoughts on this are similar to the previous point. In this case, Ted’s referring to certain digital products marketed and sold by one part of Amazon, which would be vulnerable. I’ve got to believe that companies like Amazon would either plug the holes in this system or else seriously revamp it.
Remove quality controls from AI training… so that bad information is literally built into the system.
Totally agree this is a risk and this is an area that I’ll being looking into more for my own education.
Get Hollywood to invest billions in CGI technology, so that fake videos look just as convincing—or even more convincing—than real film footage.
Um… I don’t doubt that the technology could be exploited but this seems like a stretch to me, especially trying to deploy it on a large scale. But I could be naïve for thinking this way. This would take huge sums of money. On the other hand, there’s lots of talk and writing about dark money so if there’s a will, and a wallet, there’s a way.
Make deepfake audio tools widely available, so anybody can use them for fraud or deception.
Agree there’s some significant risks here.
Invest billions in creating bogus metaverses and alternative reality platforms, where absolutely nothing is real—even human bodies are turned into simulacrums.
Sorry Ted, I think this one is too far into the realm of science fiction. Ten or twenty years down the road? Maybe… But there would have to be some pretty sophisticated psychology thrown behind this to do… what exactly? Use it to spread propaganda? Mind control and programming? This does bear monitoring but right now I don’t think the economics are there to force the needed uptake.
Put almost every influential publishing house in the world under the control of 4 or 5 global corporations run by people with identical elite backgrounds.
The only point I’d argue here is that this has primarily lowered the number of players but I don’t think the backgrounds of book publishers would have changed too much as a result of these consolidations. Many industries are incestuous by nature i.e. there’s a limited pool of people who know the industries well enough to thrive in any market and you have similar personalities and beliefs between many industry players.
Destroy scholarship by charging exorbitant subscription fees that prevent people from accessing scientific research.
Totally with Ted on this one and this situation needs to be improved.
Meanwhile, fill up academic journals with studies that can’t be replicated, because they were written to advance careers and please grant-givers, not promote the truth.
I’m given to believe that yes, this is a significant problem (a complex one) to be addressed. The recent allegations against Francesca Gino and Dan Ariely could just be the tip of the iceberg.
Force everybody to go to a tiny number of digital or media platforms to get information—and then put each of those platforms in the control of a billionaire with an agenda.
I honestly don’t believe this has happened yet but certainly some disturbing signs. This is why I left Twitter, after all. The question is: are people willing to look further afield from Facebook, CNN or Fox for their news? There’s a convenience factor there for sure, for one stop news consumption and seeing the latest about your friends and family.
Remove the validation checks on the most influential sites—so that they no longer validate anything or anybody, but can be bought and misused by malicious parties.
The only place that I’m aware of this happening is Twitter and I think that Twitter’s influence has waned considerably during the past year. Unfortunately in its current state, Twitter will still have die hard fans until the final server breaks.
Replace printed reference books with constantly updated digital platforms—so everything from encyclopedia entries to dictionary definitions can be replaced instantaneously.
I have mixed feelings about this. I’m not completely in favor of digital reference books but strong governance of the materials is key to this working successfully. The counter argument is that printed reference books have varying degrees of accuracy to begin with and become outdated and there’s a significant cost to replacing physical copied so digital references can make a lot of sense.
Make sure that even classic literary works from the past are updated, so that nobody is quite sure what any author really said.
This could certainly be taken to an extreme, so I'm more with Ted than not but again, governance could manage this if done right.
Discourage people from using physical books, which have unalterable records of the past—even to the extent of eliminating millions of books from libraries.
I’m a big fan of libraries: I’ve used them since I was a young child and I volunteer within my province’s library system, both for my local library and within provincial boards and so I take a slightly different view on this, especially the latter part about the elimination of millions of books from libraries. The practical matter is that libraries have finite space and not many of them are adequately built to preserve older books that were published decades (or centuries) ago. A certain amount of culling of book collections is inevitable in libraries (private or public). And there is a lot of value of having digital resources which could be accessed by multiple readers at once, especially in an academic setting.
Ted’s issue is that digital documents could be tampered with or changed and a physical book cannot be, thus the original text (or intent) of a book could be lost, either on purpose or by accident. I agree that there are risks: virtually every system of safeguards can be tampered with or circumvented. People in the library science or archival disciplines can speak more to this than I can.
As much as I love books and I like the idea of a permanent written record, books (and paper in general) are kinda fragile. So while I agree with Ted’s concerns, books aren’t indestructible and even classic works (especially translations into English) are periodically subject to the creation of new editions (the various translations of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations are one example and don’t get me started on the various versions of Christianity’s Holy Bible that have appeared over the centuries…).
Fill up search results with paid placement ads instead of reliable information, and make it hard for users to tell the difference.
I agree with Ted, this is a huge problem and Google Search is extremely guilty of this practice, as one example.
Evaluate and remunerate everything on clicks, upvotes, likes, etc.—so that quantity always has more cultural impact and visibility than quality.
Definitely a risk in social media platforms and reviews on retailer sites.
Put a record number of journalists in prison—simply because they covered stories that upset powerful people.
I don’t follow this closely but my sense is that Ted is dead right about this.
Get every partisan group and political movement on the entire spectrum from left to right involved in campaigns of book banning, book burning, book boycotting, and book author harassment of various sorts. Try to create an environment so hostile that writers even pull their own books off the market to prevent the inevitable backlash.
The specific example that Ted refers to is the recent decision to pull a new Elizabeth Gilbert novel, set in Russia, from publication, which seems to be an example of a publication decision to appease people from the left or center side of politics given the Russia/Ukraine conflict. These types of campaigns and lobbying are not new, as someone like Salman Rushdie well knows. Are they intensifying, multiplying and spreading across the entire political spectrum? They could well be.
Turn colleges into inefficient bureaucracies with bloated cost structures, where credentialing and admin layering are more important than teaching. Then raise tuition at five times the inflation rate over a period of decades—so that millions of potential students decide to walk away from higher education.
The only part of this step that I’m deeply familiar with is the increase of tuition costs in the Canadian post-secondary education system and yeah, Ted is dead right about this.
Turn media outlets into cheerleaders, who can only make money by telling their targeted audience exactly what it wants to hear.
I don’t think this is a new phenomenon, I think this has often been the case, but it seems more brazen and intentional than ever.
Reward sophistry—and make it the safest career path in any information-driven vocation.
Ted links to one of his prior essays where he presents his thoughts on the presence of sophistry. Sophistry is abominable and I’ll leave it at that.
Allow scandal-ridden billionaires to buy favorable coverage by giving hundreds of millions to newspapers—who desperately need the cash and can’t afford to say no.
Ted links to an article listing the different media outlets supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with the implication that Bill Gates himself orchestrated this to cover up his own scandals and failings. I think a more detailed analysis of cause and effect is needed here to prove that the timings of media investments coincided with any wrongdoing by Gates and his business interests. But yes, this is a significant risk in general terms and I would argue it’s not a new problem.
Block all attempts to require transparency—so the audience never knows if something is real or fake or churned out by a bot or paid for by a corporation or interest group.
Definitely a major risk but not a new one and the bot is the latest tool in a disinformation arsenal.
Promote a larger intellectual ethos in which knowledge is equated with power—and make this a guiding framework throughout the humanities and social sciences. Teach two generations of professors and experts that truth doesn’t exist, so that pursuit of power is the only legitimate activity.
I can’t judge this one, I don’t have the personal knowledge and I haven’t done the research. As I’ve said in a previous answer, I think this can vary greatly by country and even regions within a country.
Some general closing thoughts:
Ted is a good writer and at heart I agree with his thesis: objective, trustworthy knowledge can be really hard to come by these days and there are many players in the world who rely on uncertainty and disinformation to advance their own interests, so we all need to find our trusted sources of information and support them where possible. The COVID-19 pandemic and the Trump political era are two examples, intertwined, which divided billions of people and in the end has reduced the trust in both governments and media or else shoved that trust into some extremely odd places. Truth as a concept has been stretched and molded like Silly Putty. People from the Western world look at how the governments of China, Russia and certain other countries operate and there certainly seems to be a huge disconnect between their regimes and the professed goals and aspirations of democracies.
From a personal point of view, I do feel that Ted’s writing tends towards the dramatic and sensational on these kinds of topics. For example, starting his essay with the following sentence took me back a bit:
People keep telling me that we’re living on an Information Superhighway.
Um, really? Do they, Ted? That phrase hasn’t really been used since the 1990s when companies and governments really started to take advantage of Internet and World Wide Web for communication and information exchange. But I get that it’s a literary device so OK. And he uses the river and pollution metaphor to effectively describe what’s happened to many digital information flows since they were invented.
This essay is another step in Ted’s crusade to convince people on the critical value of trust in today’s world and, by gosh, it’s a worthy crusade. Disinformation is everywhere and people in power aren’t always motivated to tackle the problem, or so it seems. So while sometimes I think Ted’s writing is overly dramatic maybe you need a bit of that to get people’s attention and keep them reading.
I do encourage everyone to read Ted’s essay and make their own assessments, because I may quibble on some details, I think he makes excellent points.
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