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World III War
And the Rise of the Neo-Lippmannites
In a 1996 presidential briefing, the head of the US Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, compared the explosion of economic activity on the Internet to the discovery of a new planet. Although at that moment, they were looking at an economic bubble that would burst around five years later, the economy of Greenspan’s cyber planet has grown to account for around 15% of the world's output, and its GDP continues to grow at a rate more than twice as fast as that of the physical world.
Greenspan’s likening of the Internet to a new world has always struck me as a fruitful way to think about the sprawling technology. When I was in the business of building social media platforms, I found that giving the Internet a sense of place helped me to hold unfamiliar tech concepts together and communicate complicated strategies to my collaborators. I thought of my co-founders as explorers and our developers as tradesmen as we carved out a piece of land from the limitless cybermass. We set up laws through code, instantiated customs through the user interface, and encouraged digital pioneers to build profiles on our plot in the hope that one day we would preside over a digital country.
This fun and functional construct became much more profound for me when I came across philosopher Karl Popper’s concept of the ‘Three Worlds’.
For Popper, reality can be broken down into three distinct categories that he called Worlds. World One is the realm of physical objects, the lifeless domain of matter and movement that gives rise to living organisms. From these organisms, a second world of subjective states emerges. This is the realm of qualia, where all feelings, inner thoughts, and memories take place. From this subjective realm, a world of human abstraction comes into being - our World Three (W3).
Popper’s W3 is an intersubjective category that includes our ever-evolving language, art, culture, and concepts. It’s our shared world of meaning that’s not quite physical although it manifests through material means, and it’s not quite experiential though it’s felt in our experiences. It has existed in different forms for as long as human beings have communicated and civilisations are built and destroyed through its many different configurations.
At any point in time, the entire corpus of human mental activity sits scattered across the planet ready to be engaged with. This sprawling mess of symbolised thought is lost and rediscovered, built upon and arranged, as human populations work together to create sanctuaries of meaning.
Much of what we call Western civilisation has proceeded from a collection of founding texts, the Bible, from which a myriad of secondary material was produced and the sanctuary of meaning we call Christianity emerged. I am setting aside any theological considerations here to focus purely on how human beings established and maintained Christianity as the dominant worldview through the practical means of media curation and distribution.
Throughout most of the common era, the institutions of church and state kept tight control over the world of meaning with heresy and treason laws. This Catholic configuration of W3 was understood to be the word of God mediated through the authority of His institutions understood to be best able to interpret God’s divine will. These interpretations motivated behavioural norms, conquests, inquisitions, and many different rhythms of cultural activity.
The invention of the printing press ~1440 meant that copies of books, pamphlets, and posters could be replicated relatively cheaply, which facilitated a massive boom in W3 participation. Literacy spread, and through the work of Martin Luther, the translated Bible fell into the hands of the masses who began developing and sharing their own interpretations of God’s will outside of the purview of the Catholic church.
This was a tumultuous time for meaning-making that erupted into decades of war, flurries of collective insanity, and bloody persecutions.
From a disconnected historical perspective, we might look at this time as a forest fire that created fertile ground for new sprouts of meaning. Today, there are more than 30,000 Christian protestant denominations each with their own bespoke interpretations of the Bible.
Those who study media will often point to the invention of the printing press as the technological breakthrough that laid the foundations for the Enlightenment, a period in the 18th century where rational modes of thought spread across the Western world with profound impacts on social organisation. The new liberal democratic order was a complete reconfiguration of the nature and scope of W3 based on the radical idea that objective truth exists for all to explore independently, and that we all benefit from the attempt to converge on it in a free and open way.
A central concept in the liberal paradigm is the ‘marketplace of ideas’, which is a metaphorical marketplace that’s believed to facilitate innovation and social progress through fostering the free exchange of diverse viewpoints, allowing society to collectively sift through and embrace the most valuable ideas. It relies on making sure a wide range of information is publicly available and that there are legal safeguards against censorship, and ethical norms around tolerating different perspectives.
Under the meta-framework of liberal democracy, with its marketplace of ideas, many different W3 configurations can be arranged and tended to by many different populations, and non-violent conflict between these worldviews is taken to be a sign of a well-functioning democracy.
Since the Enlightenment, the institutions that were seen to mediate between God and the populace slowly began ceding authority to institutions that were seen to mediate between objective reality and the populace - universities, journalistic organisations, and the government.
“It is often very illuminating to ask yourself how you got at the facts on which you base your opinion. Who actually saw, heard, felt, counted, named the thing, about which you have an opinion?”
- Walter Lippmann (Public Opinion)
In 1922, a journalist by the name of Walter Lippmann published a book called Public Opinion where he explored the limitations of the liberal democratic order in the burgeoning era of mass media. This was a time between the world wars when innovations in radio, the telegraph, industrial printing, and cinema were making their presence felt.
Running against many of the assumptions embedded in the liberal paradigm, Lippmann argued that people don’t have direct access to objective reality due to limitations in their knowledge and access to information. Instead, they rely on heavily mediated information and simplified constructs to create a functional but distorted version of objective reality. He called this subjective representation the ‘pseudo-environment’.
“We are told about the world before we see it. We imagine most things before we experience them. And those preconceptions, unless education has made us acutely aware, govern deeply the whole process of perception.”
“The mass is constantly exposed to suggestion. It reads not the news, but the news with an aura of suggestion about it, indicating the line of action to be taken… Thus the ostensible leader often finds that the real leader is a powerful newspaper proprietor.”
Lippmann’s reflections on the human mind are at times cynical but his observations about the inner workings of mass media and the manipulability of popular opinion are hard to fault. After identifying a long list of seemingly insurmountable problems with the liberal project, Lippmann came to the conclusion we ought to abandon the marketplace of ideas in favour of a scientifically managed information environment.
“It is no longer possible to believe in the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart. Where we act on that theory we expose ourselves to self-deception, and to forms of persuasion that we cannot verify.”
Lippmann wanted to refine democracy through a W3 mediating class of objective elites whom he perceived to be less vulnerable to confirmation bias and emotionally driven moral intuitions. These elites would study human populations scientifically, and then curate public opinion toward their expert analysis. Public Opinion went on to be extremely influential and is now a seminal text for several academic fields.
Lippmann wasn’t alone in his studies of media and meaning at the time as propaganda techniques were being developed all around the world. One might view the totalitarian regimes of the decades that followed Lippmann’s book as experiments in how far pseudo-environments could be manipulated via mass media technologies.
Radio, cinema, and industrial printing had a way of augmenting totalitarian control and the regimes of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and Mao’s China, among others, completely deranged their populations through total ideological reconfigurations of their W3.
After the world wars, propaganda techniques were picked up by the free markets in liberal democracies and experimental work evolved to become the advertising and public relations industries of today. The information landscape we now inhabit is full of meticulously contrived messaging that’s distributed at mass scales to elicit pre-determined behaviours from you. The practice is so commonplace that complaining about it is like yelling at a cloud.
“Language is the house of being. In its home man dwells. Those who think and those who create with words are the guardians of this home.”
- Martin Heidegger
When the enormous media distribution channels of the Internet opened up at the turn of the century, it facilitated a frenzy of W3 participation where anyone with a PC and web connection could have their ideas frictionlessly replicated across millions of screens worldwide. In effect, the media floodgates cracked open and dumped a tsunami of information and perspectives into our shared world of meaning.
If history never repeats itself, but often rhymes, then the invention of the printing press and the advent of the Internet share a certain ring. They both increase information flows by orders of magnitude and facilitate meaning-making outside the purview of intermediary institutions.
Consider that before the flood, if your ideas were unpalatable or incoherent to the people employed by academic, media, arts, and religious institutions, they simply wouldn’t be circulated in an impactful way. In theory, you could still participate in the marketplace of ideas but you’d be stuck trying to distribute leaflets or magazines at small scales, perhaps handing out mixtapes or ranting on a street corner. Whether you’re excited by the possibilities of mass participation in mass distribution or lament the loss of more rigorous institutional filters, the old establishments did function to make the world a more coherent place.
The information floodplains we now inhabit have a hallucinatory feel - as if any sense of shared reality has come unstuck. Our human need to create sanctuaries of meaning compels like-minded people to form digital networks around different W3 configurations and generate huge amounts of mental material in ways that are faster and cheaper than has ever been possible. These networks interpret and arrange objective facts in different ways and battle for the legitimacy of their bespoke truth. In an environment awash with perspectives and uncertainty, a simple and emotionally resonant interpretive framework becomes appealing and ideology is a means for cutting through complexity and coordinating amidst the noise.
Through my work on The Reformers, I was able to get a sense of why the Identitarian (Woke) ideology flourished in this environment. The activist researchers working in the Grievance Studies departments had been busy converting the marketplace of ideas into an administered economy of ideas long before the Internet arrived to aid the endeavour. For them, the meta-framework of liberal democracy had created an unfair playing field for women and racial and sexual minorities. They want to restructure it to afford those groups or, more accurately, the views they assigned to those groups within their own worldview, more representation. I call their work ‘discourse engineering’ because it’s designed to circumvent the conscious minds of rational agents to engineer thier consent.
They study people, sociology, and meaning to develop sophisticated discourse engineering techniques and then use their ‘expertise’ in social justice to gain the authority to administer them wherever they can. This is why, I think, they’ve had such a smooth ride claiming power from within our ostensibly liberal institutions. The Lippmannesqe attitude that people live in a pseudo-environment that ought to be engineered by experts has become so dominant within Western institutions that the explicitly illiberal endeavours of Woke ideologists have found a home in them.
Throughout my time wandering the halls of different cultural institutions throughout the US and Australia, listening to as many people as would speak, I’ve been struck by a consistent observation - The liberal principles I thought governed these institutions aren’t widely believed or practised. A broad range of people, that includes but isn't restricted to Woke ideologists, employed by the media, arts, and academic institutions of the West are guided by a vision closer to the refined democracy that Walter Lippmann outlined in his book.
The public the neo-Lippmannites purport to serve isn’t conceived of as rational agents capable of interpreting objective reality for themselves but as a dangerous, confused, ignorant, emotionally driven, easily influenced, racist, sexist, homophobic, environmentally unsustainable, collection of nodes that ought to be managed into better decisions. The study of humanity seems to have given way to the study of human management, and this is what I will be exploring in my next major project.
Since the COVID lockdowns, I’ve been busy trying to make sense of the baffling new information landscape from both a technical perspective and a philosophical one. It’s obvious to me, and many others, that a vast network of neo-Lippmannites employed by government agencies, tech platforms, NGOs, and supra-national bodies, have been hard at work creating an administered information environment.
Given that the neo-Lippmannites don’t have access to perfect knowledge and can’t be free of ideological motivation or financial considerations, how does their administered economy of ideas work and to whose ends? How will they distinguish ‘adversarial narratives’ from ‘different ideas?’ If the dominant attitude among those working in our institutions isn’t liberal, then do we live in a liberal democracy? If not, what is the new governing order? Why does all this seem so obviously wrong and dangerous? Questions like these have been plaguing me for some time now, which is an agitated state that usually means a film is getting ready to come out of me whether I want it to or not.
My two-part series with Mary Harrington and her concept of the Cyborg Theocracy was my first public foray into this complicated subject matter, and I’m in private correspondence with several other people who are doing cutting-edge philosophical, technical, and journalistic work in the area. Ideally, these investigations will culminate in a high-production-value feature film where I bring together the most compelling ideas on the subject and breathe life into them with case studies and visual representations.
With neo-Lippmannites building their censorship complex, the useful idiocy of the Woke social constructors, tech industrialists buying up digital countries, hostile foreign powers actively deranging discourse and the endless cycle of culture war skirmishes over meaning, it’s fair to say there’s a Tolkienesque battle for dominion raging across the surface of our cyber planet.
And though I risk going mad from information sickness and digital death by shaming, here I wander into the fray to take on my new role as your war correspondent.
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