Truth in a Digital Media Ecosystem

Over the last few years, it’s become increasingly common to encounter the claim that we live in a post-truth society. The claim implies not only that lies and falsehoods are widely believed, but that we have, as a society, grown indifferent to the truth. While experience offers enough evidence to render the claim plausible, it’s probably not the best way of framing the nature of our emerging epistemic situation. It’s certainly the case, for example, that unscrupulous individuals and organizations have trafficked in bad faith claims and arguments in order to secure influence and wealth; however, grifters indifferent to the truth have been with us at least since the age of the sophists. Others bemoan what they perceive as a failure to adequately educate the citizenry in media literacy, logic, critical thinking, or some such skill that would presumably inoculate the average person against the lies of the unscrupulous. The problem we face, however, runs deeper and is independent of the actions of bad actors. It is, instead, a function of a subtle but critical transformation of our media environment introduced by digital communication technologies.

 

Where were you when JFK was killed? When the Challenger exploded? When the planes hit the twin towers? If you’re old enough to remember any of those events, you probably have a fairly specific answer to the question. The scene is likely imprinted vividly in your mind, and, chances are, it involves some form of mass media. In each case an image or sequence of images, the distinctive plumes of smoke in the clear blue sky after the shuttle explosion for example, can be described as a collective cultural memory, which acts as a unifying point of reference. Even the form of the “where were you when” question suggests a broadly shared and stable narrative to which we can anchor our own more personal stories.

 

A moment’s reflection about how we experience events of national consequence today will reveal a very different situation. Consider, for example, how many of us might have experienced an event like the storming of the capitol on January 6th. Digital media made it likely that long before any coherent and authoritative narrative of the events emerged, we had already encountered hundreds if not thousands of images, sound bytes, video clips, and eye-witness accounts, not to mention the waves of online commentary piling up over these data points as they were being shared. The age of the grainy black and white film, the handful of iconic images, the few authoritative voices, and a unifying collective memory is now a thing of the past. We’ve left the age of the narrative and entered the age of the database.

 

It is difficult to imagine broadly shared narratives about any matter of national consequence emerging out of today’s digital media ecosystem. Critics often point to the proliferation of deliberate lies and misinformation on social media as the principle source of a polarized public sphere. In response, we hear repeated calls for more fact checking, more rigorous content moderation, more aggressive policy enforcement from the major social media platforms, and even the elimination of ad-based revenue models which are understood to incentivize radicalizing platform dynamics. But this tends to miss the point in two important ways. First, polarization as a category of analysis, suggesting two distinct and opposing ways of seeing the world, fails to account for what is really a fracturing of the public sphere into a multiplicity of perspectives. Second, while each of the proposed remedies have their place and can achieve important but limited outcomes, they will ultimately prove inadequate as solutions to the larger problems they are meant to address.

 

In each case, the proposals seek to address the content that is communicated through our vast and still relatively young digital networks without fully reckoning with the more fundamental transformation of our media ecosystem. As the school of thought known as media ecology has taught us, the most consequential effects of new media technologies are not a function of the content they convey but of the way these technologies shape our experience and our perception. What matters most, in this view, is the total effect of experience mediated through ubiquitous networks. And one way to characterize this transformation is as a shift from narrative to database as the primary frame for our encounter with information about the world.

 

What has been novel in our recent experience isn’t, for instance, the depth of the health crisis or the scale of the protests, the economic volatility, or the political instability. Rather, it’s the information ecosystem in which all of this and more has unfolded. Most of us now have far greater access to information about the world, and we are exposed to a far wider array of competing narratives attempting, without notable success, to make sense of it all.

 

Digital media introduced a new scale, pace, and pattern to human communication, and, in this way, altered how the world is perceived. With regards to scale, we encounter an unprecedented amount of information about the world at large through digital media. With regard to pace, we encounter this information with previously unknown and unrelenting immediacy. And, with regard to pattern, we encounter it both in novel social contexts and in a form that bears greater resemblance to a database than a story.

 

When we encounter a narrative, we are encountering the product of a series of choices that have already been made for you by the author out of a myriad of possibilities. The countless other choices that were possible are present only to the imagination. You see the path marked out for you as a reader, not the multiple paths that were rejected. When you encounter a database, however, you see the opposite. You see the field of possibility and any number of paths through the database remain hypothetical and potential.

 

This may seem like an esoteric or trivially academic observation, but it presents us with an important insight into our media environment. Narratives lead us along a particular path marked out by those telling the story. The etymological link between author and authority is worth noting. Something very different is happening when we’re online. It’s not that we are literally presented with a relational database, but we are presented with what amounts to a loosely arranged set of data points whose significance and meaning has not been baked into the form itself. Moreover, we can make our way online with a high degree of independence relative to how we might make our way through an analog media artifact.

 

One effect of our digital media environment, then, is to immerse us in searchable databases of information rather than present us with comprehensive, broadly compelling, and authoritative narratives. A number of consequences follow, here are just a few.

 

  • All narratives generated from the database are tenuous and subject to constant revision. They are but one possible path through the database, and everyone knows alternative paths are possible.
  • Narratives seek closure (the story must end). The database is open-ended (it assimilates new data indefinitely). The database resists the narrative impulse to control and stabilize meaning.
  • The database is blind to traditional categories such as credibility or trustworthiness. The database is indifferent to truth. All entries in the database have the same value, although they can be differently organized.
  • The untamed memory that characterizes the database undermines the traditional functions of narrative. The database cannot account for development across time. Redemption, for example, is a category that only makes sense in narrative terms. Only narrative can temporally relativize the meaning of words and deeds. The database cannot render judgments of this sort.

 

While there are plenty of modern day sophists about in the digital agora, most of us don’t live as if truth doesn’t matter. The problem is a proliferation of truths. No one can dictate how we will all make our way through the database. The authoritative narratives binding society together have been lost. Those who choose to speak of a post-trust rather than post-truth society are closer to the mark. What has broken down is trust in the older analog institutions that in an earlier era would have shaped the prevailing cultural narratives. This is not a situation that can be “fixed.” It is a function of our still relatively novel digital media environment. For better and for worse, there is no going back.

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