The year is 2060. Angela Betts thought she had gone crazy. A fan of the New York Times crossword puzzle, she’d done it online every week for years. Today’s clue read: “Capital of the Gem State?”
The answer should fit into the five-letter box. Boise.
Only today’s crossword puzzle left space for an eight-letter word.
That can’t be, thought Angela. Idaho is the gem state. And Boise is the capital of Idaho. I should know. I live here.
On a whim, Angela Googled: “What’s Idaho’s capital?”
The results took her breath away. Wikipedia listed it as Meridian.
That cannot be. Angela went to every site on the first search page. They all said the same thing: Meridian is the state capital of Idaho.
She got out her phone. “Siri, what’s the gem state’s capital?” she asked.
“Meridian is the capital of Idaho with a population of nearly 120,000.”
Backing away from her computer in shock, Angela ran downstairs to her basement. Tucked away in the corner was a dusty collection of Encyclopedias Britannica she hadn’t opened since before her kids were born. She went to volume “I” to find the entry to her home state.
With a sigh she confirmed Boise is Idaho’s state capital.
But her relief vanished as she realized it didn’t at all matter what this old book said. Most people she knew didn’t own physical books. And if they did, they sure didn’t have a copy of the Encyclopedia. The last one was physically published in 2010. That was 50 years ago.
Angela shuddered to imagine just how many “facts” must be changed every day. Without anyone ever noticing.
We live in what may be called a narratable existence. When it comes to plants and every other animal, things just happen to them. There is no higher organizing principle, nothing to make sense of the world.
Humans are different. We construct reality by crafting stories of events. These impart meaning, giving us a sense of the past via our (shared) history. Likewise, we tell parables to kids to explain the world and our place in it.
But what happens when a central authority changes the story we tell ourselves? They can change reality. This has already begun in our growing technocracy. The current administration just redefined “recession” to change public sentiment.
A July White House post reads:
What is a recession? While some maintain that two consecutive quarters of falling real GDP constitute a recession, that is neither the official definition nor the way economists evaluate the state of the business cycle. Instead, both official determinations of recessions and economists’ assessment of economic activity are based on a holistic look at the data—including the labor market, consumer and business spending, industrial production, and incomes.
Novelist Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, “a sane person to an insane society must appear insane.” In this case, when “sane” people tried to counter the economic definitions shifting beneath their feet, they were canceled. By whom? The new arbiters of our narratable reality: our tech overlords.
After Phillip Magness, research and education director at the American Institute for Economic Research, disputed the new official definition he received a warning label from Facebook that his post was “misleading.” He later tweeted: “We live in an Orwellian hell-scape. Facebook is now ‘fact checking’ anyone who questions the White House’s word-games about the definition of a recession.”
Prescient as it was, George Orwell’s dystopian vision fails to imagine the vast technological powers future governments and their corporate abettors would one day wield. The situation is far worse than even he could imagine.
As we discuss in our new book, Neuromined: Triumphing over Technological Tyranny (Fast Company Press 2023), techno tyranny via centralized control is society’s real growing threat. Not whatever “crisis” the powers-that-shouldn’t-be next gin up.
You see, Orwell’s book was published in 1949 before widespread computer usage. Orwell worried about the physical manipulation of content. (His hero Winston Smith works for the so-called Ministry of Truth. His job is to change historical documents to best present Big Brother, aka the government.)
Now that we have digital files it’s easier to control information flow in real-time, and in the process, affect even more people faster. All it takes is a few dedicated Wikipedia editors to distort our narratable reality. Don’t believe us? Look at Wikipedia’s recent revision history on its “Recession” page.
Looks like the 21st century’s Winston Smiths are hard at work.
Extrapolating from this example, we can see how easy it is for authorities to affect centralized control, beginning with definitions of words. Thousands of years ago, the philosopher Confucius said, “Signs and symbols rule the world, not words nor laws.” In the age of near instantaneous communication, digital signs and symbols, customized by your personal data are reshaping our reality before our eyes.
Time to open them.
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