One of the US founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, once said, “An informed citizenry is at the heart of a dynamic democracy.” How do we become informed in the so-called “post-truth” era? This question is much on my mind as I revisit my home country this Thanksgiving season. It is apparent to me that there are many roadblocks in our way. There is the corporate media, which reflect the viewpoint of the corporations. Or we can choose one or more of the internet sources, which reflect the biases of those who create them. How to sift through all this conflicting information and come up with “the truth”? And what is the truth anyway?
I’m aware that I choose sources that I agree with for the most part. This has been called the “echo chamber” effect, where I can be led to falsely assume that most people agree with my positions. The most recent example of the “echo chamber” was the false prediction in most of the media I was following that Hillary Clinton would win the election. We moderates were completely blown out of the water by the result.
The extent of the echo chamber is visible on my computer screen every day. How is it that most of the ads on my screen are for items that I have recently searched for? The answer is simple. My internet activity is being monitored and tracked by companies who want to sell me stuff. My choice of news sources is being similarly tracked and I'm given more like what I have read.
You can try an experiment to see this at work. Just go to a website that you find totally repugnant and spend some time there. See how long it takes before you begin to see similar sites showing up on your Facebook and your news sites. You can speed up the process by clicking on hot links on the site. It won’t take long for your email inbox to fill with similar trash. We are all in the echo chamber to some extent.
Then there are the people (some in positions of power) who intentionally lie. “Moderates” have largely given up on trying to fact-check Donald Trump’s statements. We just assume they aren't true. His lies are quoted in the press worldwide, amplifying their effect. It has become apparent that the truth doesn't matter, and those who try to say it does are just being old-fashioned liberals. But I ask you: how can we have a democracy when the media routinely don't challenge lies?
This blurring of fact and fiction is amplified by so-called reality television and docudramas. People are entertained by these shows and this presidential election was seen as reality television in which the leading “politician” is a reality TV star. That the result has real-life significance seems to elude most people.
Add to all this, the presence of “fake news” that purports to be from reliable sources, but is in actuality, a lie perpetrated by individuals who seek to inflame public opinion. There are now fake-news apps that claim to identify false news before it gets shared widely on the internet. I wonder when will we see the first fake, fake-news app? (Answer: we already have!)
Then, add to the mix the Christian fundamentalists who have a deep distrust of being informed by anything other than the Christian Bible.
Yes that's the book for me,
I stand alone on the Word of God,
Yes that's the book for me,
I read and pray, trust and obey,
(A song taught to children in fundamentalist churches.)
The people I grew up with in small-town rural southern Kansas have observed that being educated stands in the way of maintaining their Christian faith. They speak about “Godless science” and distrust anyone who is educated beyond the level of “reading, writing, and arithmetic.” The “reading and writing” is limited to American English and arithmetic doesn’t extend beyond what is necessary for simple calculations. It is easy for these folks to imagine that the small world they live in is the center of the universe and people who are very different from them are suspect. When they hear someone who is “more informed” they say: “Well, that’s your education talking.” Distrust of education does not extend to distrust of various right-wing news sources and conspiracy-theory sites, so they are massively manipulated by these media and have little ability to evaluate what they are fed.
What would Thomas Jefferson say about this state of affairs? We can only guess, but my opinion is that democracy is impossible in these circumstances. If democracy is impossible, what form of government can we have? Most forms of government—monarchy, socialism, communism, and dictatorship—are repugnant to me and have failed to produce a society where individual freedom is preserved. We must, it seems to me, create a new form of government. I don’t know what this will look like, but I’m currently considering some form of tribalism developed from the traditional societies of the so-called “First Peoples.” This new tribalism would have to take our present highly technical world into consideration.
I have been thinking about the online “tribes” that I am currently a part of: The Shift Network, online conferences on Zoom and other such sites, etc. One important part of these tribes is that I’m not physically near the other members.
I went to sleep with these tribes on my mind and had the following dream. I was a citizen in a new country called the Uncontiguous States of the World (USW). This new country was distributed over the entire world. California, the state I had been traveling in, and Catalonia, the state where I live, were both part of the USW. I had my assets in California, but the banks had branches the other uncontiguous states. The currency was BitCoin, but the banks could deal in whatever currency you chose. To be a citizen in the USW, one would have to be well informed, educated, and accepting of the full range of races and cultural origins. I could move freely in the USW and feel at home. How about it—would you like to be a USW citizen?
I realize that it was only a dream, and there would be huge problems to work out (like trade, politics, etc.), but something like the USW might just work for those of us dedicated to the conscious evolution of the human species. I awoke with a smile on my face and a positive attitude about the future of our species.