It has been argued that reality is not an absolute, that each individual has his own perception of reality. Reality is the state of things, as they actually exist, rather than as they may appear or might be imagined. In a wider definition, reality includes everything that is and has been, whether or not it is observable or comprehensible. “When truth is blurred by lies and misinformation, perception becomes reality and all is lost.” What people perceive is usually what they believe, and this is based on what they hear, see and think. John Locke observed, “One unerring mark of the love of truth is not entertaining any proposition with greater assurance than the proofs it is built upon will warrant.” The reality is that one must be willing to experience the discomfort often associated with truth if his objective is to achieve positive, long-term results.
Locke’s views on the fundamental nature of reality and our limited ability to grasp it include: we know that there is an external world but not much, if anything, about the nature of the world itself. According to Locke the only thing we perceive are ideas. As the correct answer to the question, Locke proposed the fundamental principle of empiricism: all of our knowledge and ideas arise from experience. Knowledge is the perception of the agreement or disagreement of two ideas. Thus, ideas come to us via our senses, which in turn can be turned into new ideas via reflection. External world skepticism is the view that you can’t know anything about the external world – you can only know about the internal world of your own mind. The precondition of thought, is political freedom, which involves a system of checks and balances.
Informationalism is an ideology that claims information has power when disseminated. Informationalism as part of the ‘information age’ played an important role in the global political economy in laying the groundwork for neoliberal ideology and globalization. These theories have painted utopian visions of the rise of knowledge-based economies embedded in globe-spanning telecommunication networks. The information-age theories have helped form the core of the neoliberal project, as they obscure behind a veil of teleological inevitability and technological determinism the political transformations which make global neoliberalism possible. This represents the rise of information as a weapon. Information can now be used as a form of web-based terrorism – as a platform to initiate propagandist attacks. This played out recently in the 2016 American election. Russian troll factories spread pro-Trump propaganda by setting up thousands of fake Twitter and Facebook accounts and shaping voter opinions through micro-targeting.
Technological determinism is a reductionist theory that presumes that a society’s technology drives the development of its social structure and cultural values. Along with the eroding national sovereignty over trade and labour laws, capital flows, and fiscal and monetary policy, the ascent of informational neoliberalism has served to undermine traditional citizenship in favour of market discipline and neoliberal hegemony. Paradoxically then, as an organic ideology ‘informational neoliberalism’ has been central to notions of globalization while it has undermined traditional modes of citizenship, most importantly the right to economic and political self-determination. The resurgence of capitalism and the subsequent rejuvenation of global class power since the 1970s are best described neither by technological determinism nor a self-propelled reorganization of capitalism, but rather through the hegemonic consolidation of two ideologies – informationalism and neoliberalism.1
Misinformation comes in many guises. It can come from social media or from works of fiction (if you now wonder whether people really extract information from fiction, think about the fact that fiction author Michael Crichton has been invited as a climate “expert” to testify before a US Senate committee). Sometimes misinformation is spread deliberately: claims that there is no evidence that humans are causing climate change have a clear aim and purpose. Unfortunately, the media often contribute to the spread of unsubstantiated myths because of a focus on “balanced” coverage. Alas, the “two sides of a story” don’t always deserve equal space because of an imbalance in evidence. Neoliberalism is supported by Adam Smith’s theory of economic determinism. Adam Smith tried to achieve in economics what Newton had achieved in physics. Smith’s concept of the invisible hand is an indirect intervention to counter instability of human reason to achieve social harmony by itself.
The now common idea that we can “check facts ourselves” is at best an illusion. The fact we can “look things up on the net” can give people the impression they understand something when in fact they are overlooking important domain-specific details, or are trusting the wrong sources. This ultimately leads to a decline in trust in true experts. It’s easy to get bogged down in a misinformation “echo chamber”. The same misinformation can appear on many linked websites, which may lead to the impression of corroborative evidence from multiple independent sources, when it is not. Another approach is being a skeptic in the true sense of the word – critically assessing evidence and questioning people’s motives – requires effort and time, and often we lack one or both of these. However, when people’s beliefs are very strong, these beliefs will bias information processing and lead to what is known as “motivated reasoning”. People with strong beliefs and motivations will preferentially attend to and interpret information in a way that supports their beliefs.
Most postmodernists agree that the Enlightenment project – with its lofty claims about the idea of universal truth and our ability to discover it – was a failure. Rather, postmodernists stress that no one possesses a “view from nowhere,” a “God’s eye” view of the world. We are all, alas, trapped within a certain perspective, a perspective informed by our own interests, beliefs, goals and aspirations. One cannot therefore speak of universal truth; truth is necessarily local, relativized to specific individuals or communities. We can no longer speak of facts – since we have no way of accessing the world independently of our own perspective. Postmodernism, claim the neoliberals, is a left-wing theory promoted to liberate oppressed communities from the dominance of the ruling classes. This was to prevent “hegemonic” communities – Corporate America, government, Big Science – from having the power to force their version of the truth on everyone else.
We are indebted to Donald Trump for bursting the informational neoliberal bubble. Trump has focused us on the real issue of the day. He is teaching us all about the power of dissemination of (mis)information. Mr. Trump and his surrogates have signaled that they intend to counter the media’s version of truth with their own alternative facts, the “truth” from their perspective. Trump’s election unmasked the diminishing truth in social media and the fraud of neoliberal economic change. His new economic vision was nothing more than national neoliberalism. He attracted a dispossessed and disenfranchised white, male working class, unsatisfied with neoliberal globalization and the insecurity and hardship it has unleashed, to support him. Once elected, he pivoted 180 degrees and appointed the wealthiest cabinet ever who are quite comfortable in bed with powerful multinational corporations with economic and political might that rivals that of many national governments. In other words, Trump’s election does not mean the end of neoliberalism.
There will be fusion of state and market interests under this emerging national neoliberalism. However, there will not be the appearance of heavy handed government dictates and interventions, but rather domestic privatization initiatives, appointments of businessmen to government posts, fiscal stimulus and the business community’s need for protection abroad will bring them closer. We now live in a world where truth is defined by those who can afford to spend the most money to have their version of it advertised widely. Nietzsche insists that there is no such thing as absolute truth, and argues instead that all thinking and perception comes from a particular perspective, and that different perspectives will produce different views of truth. There are only these views of truth, or interpretations; there is no objective reality beneath them, no independent standard that they refer to. Instead of using truth as the highest standard of value, Nietzsche argues, individuals need to develop their own powers of judgment and to produce ideas and ethics that will strengthen them and help them to live.
Paid trolls and ‘think tanks’ disseminate information supporting the oligarchs. The value accumulated by social media companies generally occurs in financial markets, rather than in direct commodity exchange. The stable class structure underlying Keynesian industrialism – with its secure working classes and its loyal middle classes – is now replaced by a social Darwinism survival of the fittest dictated by neoliberal informationalism where multitudes of insecure workers employed in cognitive sectors produce value to be siphoned off to the world’s financial marketplaces. George Orwell observed, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” We desperately need a balanced view. The challenge is to realize enduring ideals by means of new practices and reformed institutions in response to changing historical conditions. Without principles, we become enslaved to this or that determinist theory of history. In addition, without a theory of historical challenges and opportunities, the reality is we become subject to outmoded practices and anachronistic institutions such as neoliberalism.
1 Neubauer, Robert. Neoliberalism in the Information Age, or Vice Versa? Global Citizenship, Technology, and Hegemonic Ideology. tripleC 9(2): 195-230, 2011. http://www.triple-c.at