First, Know Thyself (From the Archive)

With the entire Internet at our fingertips, we are overwhelmed with information and demands that we stay current with myriad issues. We cannot possibly form an opinion on every topic...

With the entire Internet at our fingertips, we are overwhelmed with information and demands that we stay current with myriad issues. We cannot possibly form an opinion on every topic, so when challenged in uncharted waters, we either 1) mimic a source that we trust or 2) repeat the last thing we’ve heard. Both choices are bad, and I wish we could make it more acceptable to respond, “You know, I don’t think about the border wall”, etc. Yet the real problem here is that we get exhausted and stop thinking for ourselves even on topics we do care about. We start going with the current, and even craving the distraction of reading something new and unrelated each moment, instead of thinking.

In my own life, I have only found one antidote to this information listlessness:

Before you read another article or enter another debate, about the president, or the public response to the coronavirus, or any other topic, grab a notepad and write down what you currently know. As you read or watch, compare your current understanding to expert explanation, to politicians’ and pundits’ opinions, to your friends’ thoughts. Orient yourself so that you can make sense of the world, assess new information, and detect falsehoods.

This practice accomplishes two vital things:

  1. It makes you pay closer attention. When you are committing yourself to words in ink, you have to think about how you'd defend them.
  2. If you do this at all regularly, even once a month, It gives you a history of your own thoughts , a record in your own hand of the world’s evolution. Any time you want to return to a topic, it is as if you never looked away.

This practice has helped me to challenge myself and my assumptions on a broad range of topics and skills - philosophy, cooking, geography and history, science, cybersecurity and networking. In the middle of March, when the news about COVID began to seem very serious, one of the first positive actions I took was starting one of these pages, using sources like the CDC, WHO, and writers I trusted. It helped me to feel that I had some kind of grasp on the situation, a place to build my understanding from: to know that I wasn’t hyperventilating or doom-scrolling, and that I could start to make a practical plan.

The beginning of my COVID-19 analysis page from mid-March
The beginning of my COVID-19 analysis page from mid-March

This form of reflection and self-knowledge may seem small, but I believe it is a regenerative political act. To illustrate, let’s look at an opposite form of worldlessness.

The most famous conclusion of George Orwell's 1984 is that power demands not that you obey, but that you love obeying. That you write 2+2=5 because you want to, because you believe it fervently. Orwell crafted a vision of a totalitarian state taking Stalinist principles to their logical conclusions, but to think that power always manifests itself by violence and sadism is the wrong lesson. After all, though Winston Smith is given the Room 101 treatment, the rest of the novel’s mediocre cast are spared both his consciousness and his fate. Terror, in all the forms and justifications that O’Brien wields it, is essential to a totalitarian regime, but it will always be narrowly applied. The day-to-day reality of a terror regime is unfreedom to understand the world, suppression of thought and conscience. The crucial elements of 1984 are Orwell’s elaboration of Newspeak and control of history; the crucial parallel with modern life is that our information overloads can create the same sort of unreality as a monolithic Party-state.

In that novel, the Party ministries of Truth, Love and Justice are able to unmake and alter reality all the time, changing its course by exerting their power over people and information. Orwell creates a dreary future where the party’s god-figure Big Brother cannot be escaped or contradicted, on personal telescreens or billboards, in public life or private relations. His primacy is backed by state-party power. Terrorism and torture are the capital propaganda draws on, but they are mostly held in trust.

In our inundated age, we have learned that it is possible to propagandize without censorship, if someone is willing to hold enough attention on themselves with an endless, self-contradictory, ridiculous, unfathomable string of lies. If you can create new content fast enough, opposition and even truth are no object. This is wielding language as a weapon: lying because it is an act of power to deny the truth and be believed.

We have learned that, if people are atomized and disoriented enough, they can be unmoored from any understanding of the world, and carried away in the current of new information given to them every hour. Ubiquitous media is the mechanism for this conjuror’s trick, creating a veil of uncertainty around everything. If most people are not consciously comparing new information to their own convictions and knowledge, then the most repeated idea holds fast. Massive media consumption, bereft of filters or proportion, limits or effective editing, is as dangerous an enemy to serious thought as propaganda. And serious thought is vital to democracy: a republic’s virtues and representatives are only a reflection of its electorate. If the electorate do not make up their minds, then this cynical wizardry gets to run away with public opinion.

“The most conspicuous and most dangerous fallacy in the proposition ‘Nobody does evil voluntarily’ is the implied conclusion, ‘Everybody wants to be good’. Most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be one or the other.”   -Hannah Arendt