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Sections of the book ‘Liquid.info’ as they are written and edited, for comments and revision by you. A philosophy of better information tools & environments for life in a fully digital world

In the Information War : Arm the Citizen (part 2) Approaches

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As with any complex problem there will be no magic bullet but there will be approaches with varying degrees of potential.

Delegated Augmentation

Our reactions to these threats cannot be to sling back more propaganda since this only increases the divisions. Furthermore we cannot ask our governments to inform us since both fake news and actual government behaviours have further delegitimised government presentations, such as we have seen on both sides of the Atlantic. We need to augment ourselves.

We should not trust AI to do our thinking for us since then we are no longer in charge. This would be no different from giving up our political power to any political party. We must think for ourselves, we cannot delegate our own augmentation.

We should also not try to build some sort of an objective ‘truth’ machine since the problems are not so much about ‘what’ but much more about ‘why’ and that is where truth is less useful than understanding different perspectives. Any time we believe we have found a truth what we have found is a dogma. Truth destroys creativity and the most urgent, pressing problems we have in the world are complex problems lacking in any single, simple truth.

I further do not believe that we should wait for technology to ‘plug’ into our brains directly. This will happen but it’s quite a ways off and we already have incredibly powerful computer-brain interfaces through our eyes and hands. To wait for this is simply to delegate to the future and to give up on our responsibility now.

Social Augmentation

It is clear however that both organised education and personal-growth education can help provide us with the mental tools we need to assess what we are presented with and to open up new vistas to explore (to references to Microsoft products at the end of that sentence, not intentional).

It is furthermore clear that organised religion can play a positive part in turning us towards a peaceful spiritual co-existence and away from earthly conflicts.

Art, pottery, mediation, discussion groups, international student travel groups and many other endeavours can also be positive moves to unite us in a world increasingly divided by walls (Marshall, 2018).

Integrated Augmentation

Doug Engelbart called for an integrated approach where we take into account the full augmentation system framework. This is an approach discussed in detail in the literature on the Engelbart Institute website and which warrants real and serious consideration: http://www.dougengelbart.org/content/view/164/126/

Augmenting Interaction for Deeper Literacy

The proposed approached outlined here however, covers only the individual seated in front of their information display and what tools we can provide them in the privacy of their own thoughts. This is based on my firm belief that the very act of providing more powerful digital tools for thought will empower the dreams of the liberal democracy to survive and thrive. Providing richly interactive tools to empower more freedom of information movement and display will provide the ‘grease’ for greater intellectual movement. The notion is that whenever a mental spark point occurs-whenever the user is curios about something or things something ‘doesn’t look right’, to provide interactivity to light that spark into something bigger, at a mental load below a threshold of noticeable effort.

What is important to consider about democracy is that it is a process, and this process is both a privilege and an obligation. To truly live in a democratic society requires the individual citizen to take ownership this process. The more they do so, the more democratic it will be and the less they do the less democratic. Democracy cannot be offload to someone else.

The question of how we can employ and deploy communications technology to deepen our interactions is a question which goes to the very heart of democracy.

I feel that developing powerful tools can also be an Archimedes Point, a point of leverage which can be distributed widely and effectively to enhance the other efforts to promote a more thoughtful, connected, safe and free world where the feeling of ownership and responsibility is more widely shared.

This is all a bit of an emotional ramble. The next section deals with what building such tools would involve.

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In the Information War : Arm the Citizen (part 1) Threat

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Much of our professional and social lives are conducted through relatively small screens and the more important our interactions through these screens become to us the more effort we should, as a society, invest in making the interactions as efficient and powerful as possible.

The Threat : Vastness, War & Centrality

We are facing continuous increase in what some call information overload, which makes it harder to stay on top of our professional game because of the sheer volume of new information to go though to evaluate and contextualise and to use. The vastness becomes harder to navigate.

Social Media Fake News

We see our social media interactions as a diversion, a pleasant distraction from our mentally taxing online work and this is where our freedoms are actively being curtailed. The word ‘freedom’ is casually thrown around by many and often stands undefined but what I am referring to is specifically the freedom of thought where we have practical access to different perspectives to make up our own minds so that we are neither brainwashed by someone else nor simply passengers of our own prejudice and ignorance.

The ‘warring factions’ include domestic and foreign actors who use deliberately fake news to achieve rifts in their perceived enemy’s ranks. They do this by fostering and exaggerating divisions through presenting the views of one group to anther in caricature light and therefore increasing the perceived distance: “If this is what the other guys are like, then they are crazy!”. They also make the points of the group you agree with stronger, “it’s not correct but it illustrates a point!” causing you to share the fake news as well. The effect of this is to make the sides feel further and further apart.

This is further amplified by the planting of false stories in traditional news media which will sow confusion in the first round and a discrediting of the media in general next. Timothy Snyder (2018) discusses this in detail of how the Russians started this tactic in Ukraine and further refined it in the US.

Information Processing Centralisation

Yuval Noah Harari writes that “In the late twentieth century democracies usually outperformed dictatorships because democracies were better at data processing”. His illustrative example is how the top down approach of the Soviet Union could not compete with the freer market of the United States–an open market has many more points of decision than a top-down economy. Our cause for concern however, is how the technologies have flipped the information processing balance away from the power of many small processors each with small amounts of data to large data processing centres with centralised massive amounts of data. In other words, the struggle to maintain democracies is not just a struggle against external threats but also internal, structural change.

“They can take our freedom”

The information war we are living through, of active bad actors and the silent inertia of power accumulating centrally, is not a war against any particular political party or government; It is a war against the fundamental idea of liberal democracy. This is not a war simply of abstract ideas, it is a war of capabilities, of power–a war where the fundamental issue is one of freedom of thought and freedom of action–we are under attack from those who wish more power to a specific ideology or a specific political class. To fight for the liberty of the citizen it will not be enough to protect the citizen from without, the citizens must be armed with much more powerful means through which they can interact with their information, their thoughts and each other, in an increasingly vast and hostile digital information environment.

The internet is a powerful medium for not only communicating information but also for disinformation. The means through which we can interact with the information will to a large extent determine how deep our shallow this interaction and the resulting understanding will be.

 

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Digital Substrate

Digital interactive text shares its orthography, the lines and shapes, with all previous substrates but where the interactions afforded by all pre-digital substrates are limited or expanded the utility–the interactability–of the materiality of the substrate itself, such as paper making the text easier to annotate and carry than stone or clay, the digital ‘substrate’ (“to spread underneath”) is uniquely powerful and useful:

• On non-digital substrates the textual meaning is contained on the surface of the substrate–in the orthography–the shapes of the text.

• With digital text the orthography is only a representation of the text–the text itself is stored within the computer system.

It’s important to note that digital text is inherently interactable since the very act of summoning the text to be displayed is an interaction (at runtime there is not necessarily a human specifying the steps of the interaction, many are pre-set and pre-assumed). Thus, in the same way that the computer can and must interact with the symbols to display them (must have an address for the text in storage somewhere and must have a specification for how the text should be displayed), the user can, with appropriate software systems, further interact with the text, changing the specification for what text should be displayed by somehow providing an address for the text and changing the way the text is displayed (there is no inherent, only legacy reason that documents on computers look like virtual copies of text on paper) and what operations are done on the text’s symbolic meaning.

This difference goes far beyond the philosophical and into the core opportunities of digital text: The phenomenal potential of vastly increasing our abilities to interact with knowledge through the digital text.

This is crucial because we get the surface meaning from reading the surface and we have always needed to further interact with the text in order to go beneath the surface, through reading several reports or books on the same subject, through annotating and scribbling down our insights–we have always interacted with text to the best of the ability of the substrate–digital text provides a whole new, powerful set of dimensions through which we can go deeper. It is through interaction we ‘get a handle’ on the meaning behind the text and this is how we can ‘change our perspective’ and ‘gain deeper insights’, all terms which reflect our age old experience of physically being able to move around our environment. Now that we increasingly live and work in a digital environment access in large part through digital text, we need to create the means for us to interact with the text as fluidly as we can pick up an object with our hands but as richly as only digital technologies can allow.

This is not just a philosophical point and I am not just playing with words about how interactivity gives us deeper insights, helps us get a handle on things and helps us change our perspective, it is deeply rooted in who we are. An illustrative example is what happens with ‘tactile vision substitution systems’ where someone who is blind has a camera connected to actuators on their skin which allows them with some experience to ‘see’ through their skin. What is revealing is that this ‘vision’ is only achieved when the user can move the camera–interact with what they are seeing by changing their perspective.

If ‘seeing is believing’ then ‘controlling what you are seeing goes beyond superficial belief and generates understanding’.

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