KEEP THE FLOODGATES OPEN

KEEP THE FLOODGATES OPEN

Here’s the history of the West in the past 30 years: There occurred, in the grand scheme of things, a frivolity, about which people talked to pass the time as they went about their existentially gutted lives. A triviality followed the frivolity. A couple weeks later, there transpired an insignificance, followed by an immaculate inconsequentiality. Then, there took place a paltriness, which made for a great chattering for two weeks. The media discussed it with fervor and reaped salaries worthy of imbuing trifles with thunder. One thing happened, then another, and then yet another, faster and faster. Everyone talked about the happenings, but they didn’t matter, and so whenever the next thing happened that didn’t matter, the media and the masses moved on to that. Nothing was worth saying much about, so not much was meaningfully said about anything. 

In the course of this lack of meaning, there came about what we call the internet and social media. But since there was nothing constructive and immediately pressing to talk about, these were used only to circulate pornography, share pictures of puppies and lattes and nephews and Christmas trees (to circulate pornography), amplify the jibber-jabber of the official media (to circulate pornography), and to enlist gullible men in disaffected segments of society into terrible extremist terrorism. 

Then came COVID-19—virus of deadly pandemic, vector of resurgent History. Finally, the West has something real to talk about again, and not only for 15 minutes, but for months. Not even 9/11 (rather than its ramifications) was discussed as much as this intangible terror. For the first time, it isn’t just Those Whose Talk is Deemed Worthy—the political and media elites, the bureau-crats, and think-tank mouthpieces— who are affecting how reality is engaged. Little else of note appears on social media and WhatsApp groups, and people take it seriously. 

You would think the talking heads and mouthpieces would be jubilant. After all, the phenomenon they were so excited about two decades ago is finally happening. The internet is empowering people! The masses are speaking! Alas, problems have occurred, and the legacy voices haven’t been pleased. Moreover, the upswell of talk has created a deluge. It has been difficult to manage information, to separate the true from the false, especially for boomers, who largely run the news desks. Institutions of the liberal order ranging from The New York Times to the World Health Organization have dubbed this a supposed “infodemic.” 

A lot of misinformation has spread on social media, for sure. For example, India has 400 million WhatsApp users. The central government launched a chatbot there to curb misinformation, which processed over 25 million conversations in its first ten days. Still, to dub the flood of information on the internet as a complementary pandemic is a paranoid reaction by the gatekeepers of public discourse and the dominant institutions of the ruling order. 

Consider the article in The New York Times titled “Surge of Virus Misinformation Stumps Facebook and Twitter.” It describes what the headline suggests is the problem: “...a search by The New York Times found dozens of videos, photographs, and written posts on each of the social media platforms that appeared to have slipped through the cracks.” 

It’s true the platforms’ misinformation checks have cracks. However, a more pernicious and far-reaching problem might be that this was “a search by The New York Times.” A search by a party not threatened by the so-called “infodemic” would have found and highlighted not just fake news, but also better information than legacy media is doling out. [1] After all, it’s on social media that the most intelligent commentary about COVID-19, as far back as January, was taking place, even if not part of establishment media. For example, that was when Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Yaneer Bar-Yam, and others were calling for a travel ban from China, which might have influenced Donald Trump’s decision to implement it. [2] 

On the other hand, gatekeepers were inhabiting a different planet well into February, as this graphic shows.

 

Those with official headlines were telling us that the real problem was racism or the ordinary flu, both still unverified as ever having pushed civilization into economic collapse. But it was only within the “infodemic” that someone [3] talked about how masks were a huge part of avoiding catastrophe, before governments finally started encouraging or mandating mask-usage. It was only within the “infodemic” that people have shared sophisticated information, since affirmed, about pharmacology that can help defeat the virus. [4] It was only within the “infodemic” that observers warned about economic risks associated with the virus since February in a way that might have been called fear-mongering then but is reality now. [5] It was only the unwashed hordes on the internet that were fostering communities around life-saving open-source medical supplies. [6] 

The hallowed Times, however, would rather have us not “to try to think more carefully,” but “to trust the experts.” [7] Foremost among the experts, we can assume, is the World Health Organization, which has made epoch-making ruinous over-sights and questionable follies in the last few months. For example, it discouraged mask use among the public even as of early April. It emphasized semantics to advise against talking about “transmitting” or “spreading” the virus [8]. It didn’t even declare an official pandemic until March 11, well past when others had reached that conclusion and began to plan accordingly. 

The ruling nexus of international organizations, governments, and journalism constitutes an old order that has no capacity to think about nonlinear reality, doesn’t know what it’s talking about right now, and needs to be unseated. Indeed, it’s afraid that it’s losing its ability to keep up with what’s going on and ceding its sovereignty over people’s minds to others. Thus do the powers that be groan in prideful agitation about a purported infodemic, as they named it, which they have no moral or intellectual authority to proclaim. 

So, if the West and its liberal, humanistic institutions are the old order, what is the new threatening it? Externally, and in terms of material strength, it’s China, and internally and in terms of informational hegemony, it is the tech industry. Indeed, something in the disposition and cognition of the tech world has led to it being the most proactive wing of US society concerning the virus. As Claire Lehmann put it, tech people intuitively understand what “going viral” means. [9] But the media elites haven’t looked kindly on the steps the tech industry has taken. Alphabet (Google’s parent company) might be able to mobilize with unprecedented speed to aid mass testing during a pandemic, but tech reporters of The New York Times commentariat class would much rather raise concerns about social justice and privacy. [10] Silicon Valley might be able to send 9 million masks to Americans, but Vox, after having been part of the mainstream misinformation campaign telling people that masks don’t help [11], would still rather pick a fight over “Why we shouldn’t rely on Silicon Valley for face masks.” 

Critiques of tech relate to China, as well. The liberal media has attacked China for cracking down on or ignoring speech raising concerns about the virus. It also engaged in ample grandstanding about Communist Party propaganda. But then, without a blink, it has tried to suppress lively dialogue about the crisis by labeling it an “infodemic,” propagandized falsehoods about disease control, and marginalized those who have threatened the media’s hegemony. 

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Ultimately, no infodemic exists. Some groups say informative and intelligent things, and others say useless and idiotic things. The latter includes a subset that has hitherto monopolized our attention. This group wants to defend this power by labeling all talk—intelligent or idiotic— falling outside its flailing auspices as an informational counterpart to the pandemic itself. But those who can’t divide a number by that same number [12] and defend the inability to do so [13] were bound to fail at seeing the exponential writing on the wall that was clear since January. It’s clear that contemporary global problems are of a complexity that members of the old guard can’t wrap their minds around, and if an infodemic existed, these fancily educated talking heads and fingertip flutterers should be the first ones ignored. 

Because of that, those of us who have our wits about us need to keep our focus where it belongs, because one last time, the problem is not an infodemic. The real threat about the coronavirus is not fear, privilege, wrongspeak, authoritarianism, central planning, or the market. It’s also not an overabundance of information, or for that matter, purported experts losing their credibility. It is, in fact, the coronavirus. All else, for blunting this principal threat, can be good, bad, or irrelevant, depending on how it manifests. Those who believe in the existence of an infodemic would do best not to add to it. The rest of us will go about addressing this crisis at a minimum of six feet from the rusting claws of the gatekeepers of discourse.

[1] A more theoretical examination of the relation between gatekeeping, and the quantity and quality of information, was first made by Ben Thompson: stratechery.com/2020/zerotrust- information/ 

[2] See Taleb’s tweet here: twitter.com/nntaleb/ status/1239585934838050816

[3] See that someone here: twitter.com/epsilon3141/ status/1238838106440241152 

[4] See an example here: twitter.com/__ice9/ status/1235847799423389697 

[5] Such as this tweet: twitter.com/ quantian1/status/1239384587408683008 

[6] Such as the Open Source COVID19 Medical Supplies Facebook group. 

[7] See “How Fear Distorts Our Thinking About The Coronavirus” 

[8] See this tweet: twitter.com/WHO/ status/1234619007841525764 mainstream misinformation campaign telling people that masks don’t help 

[9] As she said here: twitter.com/clairlemon/ status/1236398307968081920 

[10] See such concerns here: twitter.com/natashanyt/ status/1239384323364716544

[11] See “Coronavirus has Americans rushing to buy face masks, but health officials warn to not hoard them” 

[12] See this tweet: twitter.com/BadEconTakes/ status/1235810967746793472 

[13] See this tweet and its replies: twitter.com/MaraGay/ status/1235930884429225986 

ISHAN RAVAL THE FREE LUNCH’s head columnist, Ishan Raval is an Indic-American writer. He’s interested in political and economic innovation, and in whether a nonliberal internationalist order could best coordinate planetary complexity as is needed in this century.

MEMO 01 - JULY 2020
Copyright 2020 TFLC
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