One would think we would have better decision making about environmental policy these days. There certainly is a lot to recommend about the information that we have today.
Vannevar Bush and the Memex
When Vannevar Bush wrote “As We May Think” for the July 1945 issue of The Atlantic, he talked of a new evolving and selective access to information, “The world has arrived at an age of cheap complex devices of great reliability; and something is bound to come of it.”
Bush was speaking of information for every profession, but, at the same time, referred to science and scientists, because “a record if it is to be useful to science, must be continuously extended, it must be stored, and above all it must be consulted.”
Bush, engineer and science administrator, supervised the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development during WWII. Given that R & D was critical to the war effort and that time was always of the essence, it is no wonder that seeking ways to speed up useful discoveries and inventions was paramount. Bush complained, “To make the record, we now push a pencil or tap a typewriter. Then comes the process of digestion and correction, followed by an intricate process of typesetting, printing, and distribution.”
With the scientist of the future, as Bush then saw him or her, “One can now picture a future investigator in his laboratory. His hands are free, and he is not anchored. As he moves about and observes, he photographs and comments.”
Bush further envisioned that “time is automatically recorded to tie the two records together. If he goes into the field, he may be connected by radio to his recorder.” And, then later on that day, “As he ponders over his notes in the evening, he again talks his comments into the record. His typed record, as well as his photographs, may both be in miniature, so that he projects them for examination.”
Bush called such a device that would record and then give close to instantaneous access to information a memex. As he said, “It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, ‘memex’ will do.”
Bush went on to explain “a memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.”
Of course, for anyone who had to deal with large amount of information on a day-to-day basis, such a device would be wonderfully useful.
In fact, Bush sees the use of a memex in a wide variety of applications:
Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities. The patent attorney has on call the millions of issued patents, with familiar trails to every point of his client's interest. The physician, puzzled by a patient's reactions, strikes the trail established in studying an earlier similar case, and runs rapidly through analogous case histories, with side references to the classics for the pertinent anatomy and histology. The chemist, struggling with the synthesis of an organic compound, has all the chemical literature before him in his laboratory, with trails following the analogies of compounds, and side trails to their physical and chemical behavior.
McLuhan’s Global Embrace and the Acceleration of Communication
Bush, of course, was writing just as WWII was ending, a time when the Allies had had their backs to the wall with liberal democracy and Enlightenment tolerance on the verge of being overwhelmed by totalitarian states that aimed to eliminate personal freedom and liberties in order to make individuals cogs in a dictatorial machine. As such, sincerity in research, a dutiful consideration of all the facts and factors, and a desire to arrive at a useful conclusion was the norm. Plus, they needed useful scientific and technical information right away. Pronto! No doubt, the faster, the better.
Yet, speed in information is not without its problems.
Marshall McLuhan, philosopher and pioneer in media theory, created the idea of the global embrace, where he explains in his 1964 best-seller Understanding Media, “Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned.”
McLuhan wrote that “rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man—the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media.”
And he judged, critically no doubt, “Whether the extension of consciousness, so long sought by advertisers for specific products, will be ‘a good thing’ is a question that admits of a wide solution.”
So, this global embrace, where we are all in contact with each other in ways never before experienced in history, produces a state of affairs where, as McLuhan judges, “All meaning alters with acceleration, because all patterns of personal and political interdependence change with any acceleration of information.”
Not only does the acceleration of information alter meaning, it means, too, there is less time for reflection. Less time to weigh competing or differeing factors, less time to engage in meaningful discussions about the problems at hand.
Thus, the memex, a compendium of incredible information, is alive today as the World Wide Web with digital access by phones, tablets and computers. Further, we are in a veritable global embrace with each other, sharing accelerated information and accelerated decision making.
However, this instantaneous information and instantaneous communication demanding an immediate response can put us at a disadvantage when it comes to judicious decision making.
The problem becomes even more complicated if we consider who we tend to be in our modern age.
Ortega and the Problem of the Mass Man/Mass Woman
In his masterowrk, The Revolt of the Masses, José Ortega y Gasset points out that the general increase of the volume of knowledge that we collecticvly have means that experts have had to become more and more specilaized in smaller and smaller areas of knowledge. There is a practical side to this. There is simply too much to know, so experts have to exclude other areas. Ortega writes that such an expert has become "one who, out of all that has to be known in order to be a man of judgment, is only acquainted with one science, and even of that one only knows the small corner in which he is an active investigator."
Such a person suffers from, as Ortega calls it, "the barbarism of specialization," in which "barbarism is the absence of standards to which appeal can be made." It means, then, that one's expertise is so narrow that other's respective expertises are so narrow that no one can speak to each other about what they know.
This hyperspecialized expert, Ortega conteneds, "even proclaims it as a virtue that he takes no cognisance of what lies outside the narrow territory specially cul rivaled by himself, and gives the name of 'dilettantism to any curiosity for the general scheme of knowledge.'"
In short, the highly educated and specialized expert, researcher or scientist is much like the other problem Ortega saw in the 20th century, that of the Mass Man, and, to be fair, we must include the Mass Woman to this equation, because both are cut from the same bit of cloth.
What does it mean to be a mass man or a mass woman?
Ortega describes the mass person as “satisfied with himself exactly as he is. Ingenuously, without any need of being vain, as the most natural thing in the world, he will tend to consider and affirm as good everything he finds within himself: opinions, appetites, preferences, tastes.”
Ortega points out—and I might add, again, that this force of being a mass person affects all of us, from the elite financier to the common worker, from the all-controlling patriarch to the free-willed hippie—that this unknowing and unaware person poses a problem for society as a whole. As Ortega asks:
Why not, if, as we have seen, nothing and nobody force him to realize that he is a second-class man, subject to many limitations, incapable of creating or conserving that very organization which gives his life the fullness and contentedness on which he bases this assertion of his personality?
Ortega sees two main behavioral traits in such a person. He observes (italics added):
This leads us to note down in our psychological chart of the mass-man of to-day two fundamental traits: the free expansion of his vital desires, and therefore, of his personality; and his radical ingratitude towards all that has made possible the ease of his existence. These traits together make up the well-known psychology of the spoilt child.
So, we face a person with limited knowledge, unlimited desires and a defiance towards anyone or anything who might correct him or her.
Yet, at the same time, mass people that we are, we have access to things instantly, whether it is information or products. This is reinforced with two day shipping for pretty much whatever we want (and can afford) whenever we want.
So, the illusion, then, of sophistication, intellectual mastery and consumption of superior things is ubiquitous and tinges each of us.
Not a formula for good decision making, to be sure.
The Compounding Problem of False Information
As if all that was not enough, our decision making is further led astray by the massive and deliberate crafting of false information.
As Willis Sparks at GZERO Media reports in an article shockingly titled “The Fake News Atom Bomb,” that “in this month's Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the folks who created the famous ‘Doomsday Clock’ to remind us of the continued risk of nuclear war, cyber expert Herbert Lin makes a startling claim: False information threatens the future of humanity.”
Willis emphasizes Lin’s warning that "cyber-enabled information warfare has also become an existential threat in its own right."
Willis, echoing the promise that Vannevar Bush sought, writes, “Not so long ago, we celebrated a new age of global connectivity, fingertip information searches, self-publishing, seemingly infinite sources of information, and the advent of pocket-sized devices with more brainpower than the supercomputers of a generation ago.”
But, Willis contrasts that optimism with Lin’s conclusion that "increases in the volume and velocity of information have created a louder and more chaotic information environment that stimulates fast, angry, reflexive, intuitive, and visceral thinking, reaction, and action in people and thus displaces more complex, reflective, and rational thought."
Hmm, displacing more complex, reflective, and rational thought may not be such a good practice, I think.
Willis summarizes this problem with a frightening list. He writes, “We've already seen:
- Ubiquitous use of search engines that return results based mainly on the popularity of the answers rather than their accuracy.
- The "formation of echo chambers and media bubbles that reinforce pre-existing beliefs."
- Large-scale data mining that allows digital-age propagandists to sift vast amounts of personal data to identify and target those most susceptible to specific kinds of "fake news."
- Lightning-fast data transfers, which enable false information to spread more quickly.
- Computer-generated voices and manipulated images that are almost indistinguishable from real ones.”
As Willis points out, “according to Lin, we need ‘better ways of identifying adversary cyber-enabled information warfare campaigns in progress; good countermeasures to help human beings resist the use of cyber-enabled information warfare operations targeted against them; and good measures to degrade, disrupt, or expose the adversary's use of cyber-enabled information warfare operations.’"
The problem, though, much as we are each Ortega’s mass man or mass woman, we also face the fact that “human beings are not always truth-seekers. As this report acknowledges, all of us are guilty at times of believing what we want to believe, creating demand for false information to meet the supply.”
Case in Point: The Effort to Deny Global Climate Change
The effort to deny global warming is not only presented as a denial of global warming, but also as “the people who say there is global warming want to take things away from you.”
So, Vannevar Bush’s scientist, the person whose discoveries benefit from an explosion of scientific knowledge, is cast as the villain, as an elite technocrat who wants to take away your freedoms, your things and, quite possibly, your job.
For example, writing in Forbes, Charles Kadlec supports the denial of global warming through his review of James Delingpole’s book Watermelons: The Green Movement's True Colors.
Kadlec hits hard with his opening paragraph on Watermelons:
… British journalist/blogger James Delingpole promises to show that the man-made global warming is a fraud, one that has already cost billions of dollars and is a clear and present danger to our liberty and democratic traditions -- and, ironically, to the environment itself.
Summarizing Delingpole’s book Kadlec writes of:
… those whose rhetoric is green, but whose tactics and political ambitions he traces back to the national socialists and communists of earlier eras. Their goal is to control the economy and impose their vision of human society through the coercive power of government. All who cherish liberty, treasure the environment and aspire to a better life should take note.
This is only one example. The list of anti-environmental advocates and their writings is enormous.
Of course, the scientist is not a villain. He or she may have very specialized knowledge. He or she may not be able to articulate to the general populace the import of what they have discovered or what they are researching. But, we should remember, he or she does not want to take things away from you.
The evidence in favor of science and research is long and deep. The list of scientific advances helping humanity is large and still growing. Medical discoveries have enriched lives and continue to grow each year.
The Mind of Denial
In his book with the double-entendre title, Left in Dark Times, Bernard-Henri Lévy analyzes what he thinks are the shortcomings of the Left while, at the same time, establishing core Left values. The Left favored the revolution, in both France and the United States. In a broad historical sense, then, the Left wanted change and improvement. Paired with the Left, though, is the Right, whose core principles Lévy isolates. This definition of the right applies not only in France, but in the US, as well:
The Right, therefore, grouped together those whose highest values were Tradition, Authority, Nation, the Social Body and, along with these values, hatred of intellectuals, democracy, Parliament.
There you have it. An idea of tradition reinforces authority over the nation and society, while fighting against intellectuals, democracy and, in the case of America, Congress itself. Most importantly for us here, since science changes things, the way we think and what we know, science challenges, by its very nature, tradition and authority. Therefore, to so many on the Right, science is bad.
And, the mindset that, at the grassroots level, supports this anti-scientific attitude, one that denies global warming, is one that, as Susan McWilliams explains in The Nation, Hunter S. Thompson wrote about fifty years earlier in his book Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. McWilliams writes:
Thompson’s Angels were mostly working-class white men who felt, not incorrectly, that they had been relegated to the sewer of American society. Their unswerving loyalty to the nation— the Angels had started as a World War II veterans group—had not paid them any rewards or won them any enduring public respect. The manual-labor skills that they had learned and cultivated were in declining demand. Though most had made it through high school, they did not have the more advanced levels of training that might lead to economic or professional security. “Their lack of education,” Thompson wrote, “rendered them completely useless in a highly technical economy.” Looking at the American future, they saw no place for themselves in it.
McWilliams explains that:
Thompson foresaw the retaliatory, right-wing politics that now goes by the name of Trumpism. After following the motorcycle guys around for months, Thompson concluded that the most striking thing about them was not their hedonism but their “ethic of total retaliation” against a technologically advanced and economically changing America in which they felt they’d been counted out and left behind.
As such, environmentalism, a science driven concept, is rejected by those who reject science, distrust intellectuals and are anti-democratic. It is not a surprise that these attitudes are fed by those with the financial and political power to stymie environmentalism.
If challenged, which often they are, those who deny environmentalism in particular and science in general, take solace in their own common sense, as if to say, “Hey, it’s pretty obvious that scientific stuff is all bullshit. Let’s use some common sense here.”
David Dunning and Justin Kruger explain the self-confidence of such assertions when they write, “When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.”
So, you can reject scientists because they are part of a class that you don’t belong to. In addition, as Dunning and Kruger tell us, you can reject science because, for one, your own common sense tells you that science it wrong. And, most importantly, if you think like that, Dunning and Kruger have shown that you don’t know that you could be wrong.
Fulfilling Vannevar Bush’s dream. we have the promise today of instant access to information and instant communication with each other. We have achieved what McLuhan has labelled as a global embrace with each other. The pluses of this are enormous. In a nutshell, that old problem of waiting for the next issue of a much needed journal article to arrive no longer exists.
The negative side of this instantaneous embrace is that with accelerated information, we no longer have time to reflect on problems. We have much less time to put on our thinking caps to consider options and outcomes.
To be sure, thinking time is needed, in particular because we are all of us, each of us, affected by Ortega’s mass man/mass woman problem. That is to say, each of us tends to be a self-satisfied person contented in but unknowing of our limited knowledge. As such, it becomes all too easy to reject the complexities of modern scientific, technical and even public policy decision making.
This is all the more true with all the fake information out there, deliberately contrived to confuse and mislead the average person. There are whole industries, from false claim inception mills, to sophisticated marketing penetrations of chat and web rooms, to brazen mass media disinformation campaigns that spread lies designed to protect vested financial, industrial and energy interests.
We are left with the large parts of our society that deny global warming.
Further, we have collectively made terrible decisions in not addressing this as a civiliztional problem for the planet.
Vested interests want to keep the energy staus quo the same.
For the average citizen who can vote, who can speak, who can write a letter to the editor--and that is each of us--we have evidence that undoubtedly supports the idea of man-made global warming. However, many people, perhaps who cannot tangibly see carbon dioxide in front of their faces or smell it in their noses, deny that the annually increasing concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere causes anything at all.
As advises, "The only sustainable behaviour we should be talking about is voting for responsible politicians who promise to do whatever is needed to lower emissions, be they left of centre or right of centre. Everything else is a climate distraction."
This is spot on.
However, to paraphrase the poet, "we have choices to make, but miles to go before we get it right."
If you are new to The Eastern Woodlands Fusion, please take some time to acquaint your self with our earlier article that inform this current one.
People on the street are aware of the major environmental problems we face. Point them towards the following articles, if you might:
- The Eastern Woodlands Fusion's foundational environmental article, "Footprints in the Forest," where we discuss that our modern lifestyle coupled with the powers-that-be are major obstacles in achieving any meaningful environmental transformation.
- Moreover, the problem of environmental transformation is hindered by the fact that we may not be able to get off of fossil fuels, a point well made in this Eastern Woodland Fusion article "Can We Ever Get Off Fossil Fuels?"
- Climate change and the Eastern Woodlands is dealt with in "The Eastern Woodlands and Climate Change."
- Another, deals with the pollution--including asbestos, pouring into Lake Superior, from the flooding around it--in our article "Lake Superior's New Climate Change Reality." Part of this article is based on first rate journalism from Ron Meador who writes about Lake Superior for MinnPost. Go, Ron!
- And finally, adding to the discussion on the efficacy of environmentalism, we have our most recent article "Decision Making in Our Times of Environmental Stress."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Marc Cirigliano is a writer, professorn and noted lecturer. Currently a tenured professor of the arts at SUNY/Empire State College, Marc teaches students in a wide array of humanities subjects: art history, music history, Western Civilization, aesthetics, criticism, select areas of literature, and creative writing.