Dave Snowden

Mistaking volume for veracity?

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Laudato Si’is the latin title of the encyclical letter On Care for our Common Home which has caused some controversy among conservative catholics and climate change deniers. It is an important work, and for me a return to the focus on Peace and Justice that we lost with the death of John XXIII. I took it with me on this week’s trip to Scotland as I thought it might have material of relevance to those interesting in water and sustainability. It did, but it had more.

The quote I took for my presentation was a very basic one: Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right since it is essential to human survival and. as such. is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. He goes on to talk about the social debt to the poor as a result of their lack of access to drinking water because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity. I used that as a starting point for a more generalised argument about water and human attitudes to water being part of a complex adaptive system.

As a part of that I raised a challenge to those obsessed with social media which, while powerful, increasingly represents the tyranny of the herd rather than the wisdom of the crowd and increasingly dominated by algorithms, corporations and the like. Yes it can, has and will be used for social protest but it is increasingly used for social manipulation. The press can choose what they amplify, algorithms can generate tweets and Facebook entries and so on. We are I said rapidly mistaking volume for veracity. Now that raised the hackles of one social computing enthusiast in the audience who quoted examples of social protest – none of which I denied. But the number of cases of manipulation is increasing as those with power learn how to use the system. Also ISIS and others use social media without restriction or restraint. Like any human tool social media can be used for good or ill, and over enthusiastic support for the latest tool can lead to blindness.

People’s reputations can be destroyed without any reference to the truth by the spreading of a deliberate lie designed to be believable. The old practice of ignoring trolls is increasingly problematic as false rumours need to be nipped in the bud. The ignorant with time on their hands can create significant problems . A friend of mine in the Mounties once called this the village idiot syndrome. It used to be that every village had an idiot but everyone knew who the idiot was, but now the idiots have created a social media group to legitimise idiocy.

Now I was fairly reasonably in making those points but I wasn’t giving way on a moral point about the danger of any information flow without some type of constraint. But I had also marked another passage from Laudato Si’ so I quoted that in full:

… when media and the digital world become omnipresent their influence can sort people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously. In this context, the great sages of the past run the risk of going unheard amid the noise and distractions of an information overload. Efforts need to me made to help these media become sources or new cultural progress for humanity and not a threat to our deepest riches. True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution. Real relationships with others, with all the challenges they entail, now tend to be replaced by a type of internet communication which enables us to choose or eliminate relationships at whim, thus giving rise to a new type of contrived emotion which has more to do with devices and displays than with other people and with nature.

Now I have quoted that a length as the messages are complex and important. Having used that I pointed out that evidence now shows that doctors writing notes pay more attention to patients than those typing into computers. Other examples is that note taking during a lecture means higher absorption of concepts than typing which tends to transcription. Others in the audience joined in with other examples.

The substantial point is that we are physical beings in a physical world, that which is virtual is a partial and over concrete representation of both the abstract symbolic and the physical presence of reality. So lets use it as a tool, realise the limits, seize the opportunities, understand the nature of legitimate constraints.

  • Frances Bell

    Thanks for this post Dave – it fits in well with what I have been thinking reading and even researching recently. I am writing a blog post that I will share with you in due course but I just wanted to give you a heads up on 2 writers that are influencing me. The first is Ben Light who has written a book about his theory of disconnective practice – it’s horribly expensive but there is one free chapter http://www.palgrave.com/page/detail/disconnecting-with-social-networking-sites-ben-light/?K=9781137022462 The other writer (found via Ben’s book) is Mejias who explores the limits of the network in Off the Network https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/pdf/off-the-network

    • Dave Snowden

      I look forward to it – book looks interesting will order

  • Iwan Ll. Jenkins


    “The substantial point is that we are physical beings in a physical world, that which is virtual is a partial and over concrete representation of both the abstract symbolic and the physical presence of reality.”

    This is a great post but, for me, the last sentence is most powerful.

    It points to the need of having decision support tools which have ‘humans at the front and humans at the end.’

    Using technology upfront may have apparent measurable benefits such as speed, (perceived) interpretation, and scalability but this confidence is misplaced and dangerous.

    Case in point. This week we ran an experiment using the six word short story attributed to Hemingway;
    For sale.
    Baby shoes
    Never used

    The text analytic software came up with one framework interpretation; “Shoes not fit for purpose.”

    The 3 humans came up with 8 different experiences which could fit with the narrative, from celebration to sorrow, all of which lead to different options on how to respond.

    These new algorithms are like the old spreadsheets of the budgeting process on steroids.

    • Dave Snowden

      One worries that people who have grown up in a virtual world might reach the same limited conclusion

  • Fuad Udemans

    Great article and insights from all. The downside of mass media in terms of providing unfiltered bias and infect upon sensationalism will only grow. The points made in the post are important, so too are the comments made. From our research, it seems that aded difficulty is that due to entrenched mechanistic paradigms, most people does not question or critically review information – hence the herd mentality. See blog 1-3 on “Kapital Punishment” when you have some time (https://www.tumblr.com/blog/c-institute😉