published in The Nation Magazine, May 9-16,
“I don’t know. What do I know? All I know is what’s on the internet,” said Donald Trump on Meet the Press last March. He was attempting to excuse his false assertion that a protestor at one of his rallies “had ties to ISIS.” It was certainly a startling assertion, at least to me, bookish woman of writerly profession that I am. Of course everything that man says startles me; this time it made me think about the general status of knowing, knowledge and its online production.
The internet is hardly the first technology of information transmission to be suspect. In Phaedrus, Plato described the Egyptian king Thamus’ suspicion of the written word. Thamus feared that writing was untrustworthy, because it “will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories…you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”
I was thinking about all this because I was sitting on a train not long ago amid a group of exuberant young millenials. They were discussing religion, and the election and the influence of evangelicism in American politics. There was general consensus that none of them could understand what motivated people to attend a mega-church whose minister owned private jets. Then one young man piped up: …”but it’s the head of the Roman Catholic Church who makes more money than any of them.” Really? “Oh yes—the pope makes $200 million annually as his personal salary.” Really? Not the church? “Nope,” he said confidently: “It goes into his personal bank account and he can do with it exactly as he wants. He’s got all these homes and palaces, and he’s invested in all kinds of real estate….”
Ordinarily I’m very reticent to intrude upon conversations among strangers, but for once I couldn’t restrain myself. “Ahem?” I offered by way of introduction. “The pope takes a vow of poverty. He arrived at the job with two pairs of shoes. He does not receive a personal salary of $200 million a year.”
The young man’s response was: “Google it. I’m telling you the truth.”
I did not doubt my memory. I do not doubt myself. Yet…I did Google it, and he was right. Still wrong, but also right, in that it was the first thing that came up on Google when I entered a search for “pope’s salary”: “Pope’s personal income: $200 million annually.”
I had to ask myself how it came to pass that the first result was from 2011 on opentabernacle.wordpress.com. One has to assume that it has received more hits than any other site when it comes to the personal profit and salarial concerns of the papacy. (Google-truth is highly situational and epistemically fluid, however; for it came up as the second entry when I looked two weeks later.) Perhaps it’s a reflection of crowd-sourced belief. Or it could be as simple as a bot, or some troll conniving to push it to the top of the list. But whatever the motive or cause, it is an algorithm that ultimately decides placement—and it has been able to erase in some people’s minds the entire history of the Roman Catholic Church.
There has always been that possibility, of course. Tabloids and Fox News do something of the same thing every day. As Neil Postman points out in his wonderful book, Technopoly, King Thamus feared that writing will “change what is meant by the words ‘memory’ and ‘wisdom.’ He fears that memory will be confused with…’recollection,’ and he worries that wisdom will become indistinguishable from mere knowledge. This judgment we must take to heart, for it is a certainty that radical techonologies create new definitions of old terms and that this process takes place without our being fully conscious of it.”
All this makes me think of Microsoft’s recent attempt to launch a chatbot on Twitter, Kik and GroupMe that would sound like a teenager. Named “Tay,” it was created to “experiment with and conduct research on conversational understanding,” but quickly “turned from a nerdy attempt at reaching teens, into the racist, Holocaust-denying, Hitler-loving AI of all our nightmares.” As Peter Bright wrote in Ars Technica, Tay doesn’t understand what the Holocaust was: “She just knows that the Holocaust is a proper noun or perhaps even that it refers to a specific event. Knowing what that event was and why people might lie to her about it remain completely outside the capabilities of her programming.” Peter Lee, the corporate vice president of Microsoft Research apologized, saying “To do AI right, one needs to iterate with many people and often in public forums.” In other words, if we are going to craft an AI chatbot free of biases, we have to include everyone in the conversation. Microsoft, oddly, didn’t seem to anticipate that Twitter isn’t about “everyone,” in some happy, kumbaya way. It’s about a technology that’s proved capable of holding up a mirror to our darker realities—a space in which women regularly receive anonymous rape threats and people of color receive racist diatribes from strangers. It’s a problem of having built our prejudices into the machine, so that they take on new life, reproducing, generating, mirroring, magnifying, and ultimately ruling us in the great singularity of our robotically simulated kingdom come.
This brings us back to Donald Trump, who lays claim to knowledge but still doesn’t know. As Neil Postman observes: “technology imperiously commandeers our most important terminology. It redefines ‘freedom,’ ‘truth,’ ‘intelligence,’ ‘fact,’ ‘wisdom,’ ‘memory,’ ‘history’—all the words we live by.”
All the internet knows is what’s a proper noun, after all. “We’re going to build a wall, and Mexico is going to pay for it,” opined Tay, before Microsoft finally killed her.