Gell-Mann Amnesia, Dissonance, and Resolution
The Information Wars Part IV
The concept of cognitive dissonance is understood by most curious knowledge seekers. It is the state of holding conflicting beliefs---and humans are great at it. It's no wonder we invented music. We may be hypnotized by harmonious, resolved chords. But we get adventurous and let in discordance---particularly when it's well designed. Perhaps we feel it as part of the nature of our conflicts.
Lacking anything close to the perfect understanding of the universe, we tend to place certain amounts of trust in principles. Perhaps all living things have their heuristics, whether or not most other species rise to the level of consciousness humans have achieved. I see it as a matter of life economics---"actions reveal preferences" as the economists say. And survivor bias really does point the way to better principles. But perhaps economics is also a reason for the holding of discordant beliefs. The work that it takes to resolve---individually or socially as a group (and group "belief" adherence does affect survival, for some softer conception of "belief")---can be more work than the reward is worth. Thus we settle into various states of cognitive dissonance.
And also Gell-Mann amnesia.
Gell-Mann amnesia may be most easily understood by a simple example, so I'll point to Ben Hunt's chosen quote by Michael Crichton:
“Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.
In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.”
We have all read the New York Times or any other newspaper (of any political slant) and been disgusted by the absurdity of what we were reading---about our own topics of expertise. But then we turn the page and lap up some other story that might be just as absurd, trusting the papers of record. The same goes for CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, Oprah's Cult Factory, and essentially every other form of media. Most people quickly forget the absurd statistics, dishonest reporting, the "science reporting", or the hidden advertisements masquerading as journalism. They forget and move on consuming more. That's Gell-Mann amnesia, and we've lived through an era of mass Gell-Mann amnesia because the cognitive dissonance it entails falls into an economic equilibrium.
Enter the internet, stage left.
The history of the internet has been better described by a thousand authors, and most of Rounding the Earth's readers seem to be old enough to remember its public birth, so I'll assume most of you know it well or can find the stories if you haven't already. What you also likely know is that the content and its effects changed substantially over the past...well, maybe the most since the "mortgage bond crisis", causal or not? Now we live in a Red Queen's race between oligarch's who throw more and more money down the media hole to control the flow of information, and motivated individuals (with less and less to lose such that time is a lower relative cost when seeking truth) who found themselves staying up all night researching some topic when Gell-Mann amnesia didn't take hold across all websites, forums, apps, and channels. The process of falling down one rabbit hole and into another is bewildering and exhilarating because people recognize the need to rebuild at least a basic scaffolding of a worldview when it shatters. They either give up when pressured by the inevitable shame of "conspiracy theory" and submit to re-education, or they finally at long last see the propaganda machinery for what it is. And then it cannot be unseen. That's why today there are 217,933 people left in the United States who trust the mainstream media. More or less. That's 413 fewer than yesterday, and there is a lower bound, whether that number is zero or whether it's the number of people who believe their own bullshit. And those people need to be informed that not everyone at Jonestown drank the kool-aid willingly:
Some willingly drank a flavored drink mix laced with deadly cyanide and other chemicals, and even gave it to their children. Others, who didn't want to die, were forcibly injected.
Because killing your own people (literally or figuratively) is the only way deep narcissism ever ends.
The old game of burying true stories (bought as "exclusives", then enforced by vicious cadres of lawyers) of horror about the rich and famous in rags like the National Enquirer or the Weekly World News next to a picture of bulbous-headed space-farers kidnapping and anal probing children to create negative associations no longer cuts it. Armies of empty nesters with file cabinets full of newspaper clippings spill their guts on webpages just crude enough that you trust that the goal wasn't to impress you with graphic design. The knowledge hobbyists began to turn the tide by eliminating anal swabs from the story. At least until the legacy media recycled it for the pandemic.
Eventually, the conspiracy theorists were joined by younger alternative media builders. And the Weekly World News became Infowars. Even if half the alternative media sold out at one time or another, some credible journalists found their niche opening windows into the sausage factories, here and there. And it can't be unseen.
Have you wondered why all of the sudden the legacy media seems itself so enamored with UFOs? Enough to rebrand them under their new name unsullied by the lack of credibility of decades past: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena. Yes, that's a government website, and I'm sure your click was just added to a list in Langley.
Kidding aside...this is how Gell-Mann amnesia ends. Yes, there is/was an awakening. So, the Woke were invented. Yes, we caught a glimpse of who the fascists are. So, they invented antifascists. Yes, there is an alternative media. So, there are limited hangouts. Yes, people realized that racism was institutional. So, BLM was invented. Yes, USAID was a CIA front that participated in mass sterilization of native Peruvians, and a thousand other horrible things have happened around us even if we can't imagine that those were our neighbors who did them. Everything old is new again.
The corruption is endemic.
But the equilibrium of control is breaking. It's breaking because those who hold power have to hire increasingly absurd fiction writers just to keep the over-educated, over-busy masses confused enough to recognize the clash of values---and the fact that the guy at the punch bowl isn't the one the party goers thought they elected to mix the drinks. The music changed tempo---faster and faster---and the sense-making of the chord progressions can't keep up. The new first violin is cackling mad and it's hard to notice the conductor isn't exactly all there. So, the partygoers start to think about leaving the party, but is it ending as a scene by Edgar Allen Poe?
There are chords of dissonance now. There's no changing that. What can be changed is what comes after the plague. Can we learn to disinvite Kunlangeta to the party? We can succumb to fear, or take responsibility. Finding a good resolution is up to us, if we want to keep dancing. We don't have to let them dictate the notes. Our music is better anyhow, don't you think?
Beautifully written, and your words well-capture the experiences of many of us, who are trying to make sense of a world that no longer makes sense.
Thank you for the Yupik concept: Kunlangeta.
Modern society has created a great many of them. Globally.
That needs to change.