You Can’t Handle The Truth!
Unfortunately, Colonel Jessup was right. You can’t handle the truth. No individual has been able to for a long time.
If truth is the sum of human knowledge: facts, theories, and debate, it’s huge and growing. It’s already too large for any human to stay on top of— even Tom Cruise and he has a whole cult working for him. What could the rest of us possibly do?
There’s Too Much Truth
Is it wrong to be economical with the truth? Or necessary?
According to Microfocus, in 2019 nearly 700 million tweets, 4 billion Facebook messages, and 4 million hours of YouTube content were posted every day. Yes, even cat pictures are data.
The truth? You can’t process it. There aren’t enough hours.
You Don’t Know What’s True
Is social media the truth, anyway? It’s entirely possible some of what you read on Facebook might not be strictly accurate.
Perhaps Facebook and Twitter aren’t great places to get your truth. They’re too big, nothing’s verified, and a lot of it isn’t that interesting.
What about using a trusted intermediary? Thousands of influencers are desperate to provide you with their synopsis of the current state of human affairs. All the unnecessary details trimmed away and the dull stuff left out. What could go wrong?
Getting someone else to do the heavy lifting and give you their potted worldview has been the solution for over four hundred years. Traditionally, that someone was a newspaper. In 1605, “The Relation” became the periodical of choice for the Holy Roman Empire and from then on you could read all about it.
When modern media began to appear in the seventeenth century they derived the name from intermediate — someone who stands between you and the truth. That’s what they do. Thankfully.
Hang on! That Sounds Like a Bad Thing?
No. We’ve already established, you can’t handle the truth. For a start, there’s too much of it. For a second, it’s way too complicated for your puny mind.
You’re Not Smart Enough for the Truth
Let’s be realistic. The truth has to be explained to you as if you were a school kid. Possibly a toddler.
Any truth worth grokking these days will take too long for you to acquire the skills to do so. By the time you’ve got yourself up to speed, it’ll already be out of date. Get over it. That’s what intermediaries are for — getting the gist.
Who Have You Delegated Your Worldview To?
According to that other modern intermediary, Wikipedia, the original expectation of a newspaper was that it was publicly available, regular, up-to-date, and reasonably comprehensive.
That omits a few things that are so obvious they don’t need stating. Do they?
It has to be a summary of events
Ironically, the whole point of a newspaper is not for you to read all about it. A headline is often all you want. A few paragraphs if you’re keen. What a news source leaves out is as important as what it includes.
That might be demographic, geographic, political, or sector-specific selection. Nowadays, we talk disparagingly about this as a filter bubble, but filters are necessary. As I may have mentioned, you can’t handle all the truth.
It has to make reasonable, best efforts to be accurate and not misleading
My knowledge of journalism is entirely derived from watching Aaron Sorkin shows. However, I believe reasonable efforts usually mean three independent sources, at least one of whom wears a trench coat and lurks in an underground car park. In most other walks of life, that might be seen as a negative rather than a positive, but who am I to judge another profession.
It has to represent events in a way that can be understood by the average person
This may be the toughest task. If the concepts get hard, it’s usually left to specialist journos who can hopefully translate technospeak into something comprehensible.
It has to be entertaining and feel true. Or trueish.
Otherwise nobody will read it.
A Lie Travels Halfway Around the Globe While the Truth is Putting on its Shoes
I’m a fiction and a non-fiction writer. I can attest it’s easier to make something succinct, entertaining, and easy to understand when you’re making the whole thing up.
The Trouble is, Truth is Unconvincing
There’s plenty you can do to put over a tale and people are usually happier to accept a villain, a formula, or a wild stroke of luck for an explanation than years of tedious work, mistakes, and uncertainty. It makes for a better story.
Let’s face it, truth is boring. We all prefer a conspiracy theory. At least they demonstrate sufficient grasp of the scientific method to describe themselves as theories. And I’m not ruling out that some of them are true, although evil plans are fiddly and I’m not convinced Bill Gates is up to it. Tom Cruise though…
The Future of Truth
The relationship between the future of humanity and the future of truth is a close one. What are we doing about truth management in an expanding world?
State or private education
Childhood education provides citizens with a foundation of agreed facts, which are a good example of demographic, political, and geographic filtering. These facts are usually of a varying degree of usefulness from historical dates, which are very handy in pub quizzes, to Newton’s laws of motion, which I think we can all agree have been oversold.
In addition, schools provide truth-determining skills like literacy. This is useful, but problematic if newly required truth-detection skills appear more frequently than once a lifetime.
In the long term, we’ll need a generic bootstrapping system for self-education. In theory, reading should provide that but in practise it’s not enough.
Once you’ve left education, there are a lot of sources of truth to refer to.
- The classic is the peer-reviewed paper. Those tend to score low on both understandability and entertainment value. Don’t expect many laughs. Nobody reads them.
- Crowd-sourced and managed information (e.g. Wikipedia or open source code). This benefits from Linus’ Law: “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”. Provided there are sufficient moderators it’s a good system for correcting misinformation.
- Citizen-funded truth providers e.g. the BBC in the UK. This works if they can stay independent.
- Government-funded truth providers e.g. state TV stations. Depends how much you trust your government.
- Commercially-funded TV, newspapers, and online news. Depends how much you trust their advertisers.
- Books (fiction and nonfiction). In theory, these are commercially funded. Or so I’m told. Depends how much you trust their single source.
- Internet pages. Unclear sourcing.
- Social media posts and YouTube videos. Potentially unclear sourcing.
- Newsletters (reader, sponsor, or ad-funded). Depends how much you trust their source.
The human race is also discussing ways to censor untruths and other misleading stuff.
- Legislation is being discussed by the EU to limit social media’s lucrative micro targeted ads, which bypass the moderating effect of many eyeballs by making sure only you see the factoid.
- More active social media moderation (e.g. truth labels on tweets).
- Being clearer about the source of posts and tweets (declaring funders for political ads, for example).
All of these introduce more moderation or give readers more context. None of that seems crazy. But is it enough?
In the past, humanity’s approach to truth has been similar to Aaron Sorkin’s: check the sources or, increasingly, give readers the chance to. Does the latter work?
I’ve Read the Headline. Who Has Time for the Small Print?
Checking sources is laborious as an individual, even if Facebook and Twitter start to make it easier. Opening up an assertion and source data to many eyeballs (open source style) is inherently more scalable.
It would be nice to see companies like Microsoft or Google use their resources and manpower to contribute to transparent factual wikis (where you can view all the edits) in the same way they have become major contributors to OSS projects.
In my speculative scifi series (set 30 years in the future) the world has kept the same methods for truth management but added mass surveillance for keeping eyes on sources:
- A worldwide, citizen-controlled, BBC-like organisation (the Panopticon) publishes verifiable open data (in this case from a huge camera network — what happens in public stays in public).
- Commercial social media corporations build on real time, checkable observations from the data.
- Google-style search engines have huge commercial and social power founded on their power to compress and summarize the mountains of public data.
- Wikipedia is the source of most facts.
Is this the way humanity will go? Even more data and greater transparency on data source, combined with the many eyeballs approach of OSS?
In my fictional world, truth and transparency have replaced privacy. If you want to speak, you have to be prepared to reveal yourself. As Oliver Cromwell said, “warts and all.”
Would that be a utopia or a dystopia?
Anne Currie has worked in the tech sector for 25 years as an engineer, writer and speaker. She is also the author of a speculative fiction series.