Posted by: CS | January 25, 2014

TERD-Talks: Manure Worth Spreading

It was the idea for a title appealing to my simple-minded sense of humor that led to a search for techno bollocks propagated as high-minded enlightenment. But the resulting discovery of this wonderful TED-x featured effusion from a guy named Randy Powell prompted some serious reflection:

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Or as Jay Wacker, Stanford professor of theoretical physics remarked:

Wow. Such fucking bullshit. Well, I am theoretical physicist who uses (and teaches) the technical meaning of many of the jargon terms that he’s throwing out. And he is simply doing a random word association with the terms. Basically, he’s either insane, a huckster going for fame or money, or doing a Sokal’s hoax on TEDx.  I’d bet equal parts 1 & 2.

But the best bit is at the end. The whistling, cheering applause. After that, you’d wonder that anyone would dare be seen at a TED talk, let alone be willing to pay up to $15,000 for the privilege.

But then there’s the possibility that it is the Stanford physics professor who is deceiving us. Maybe he works for big oil and is paid to cover up the discovery of a free source of energy.

If you are as well educated mathematically as Prof. Wacker, you can probably deduce strictly from the internal logic of the presentation whether Randy Powell’s bizarre-seeming performance was logically coherent or load of total bafflegab.

But in matters of cold, hard empirical fact, which cannot be decided by logical analysis, the Internet is as useless as the mainstream media in providing proof of anything.

Thus, to quote iLucretius:

In the information age, the information we think we have consists chiefly, not of facts deducible from personal and direct experience, but alleged facts based on the alleged personal and direct experience of others.

The emergence of means for the dirt cheap dissemination of “information” thus has removed our understanding of the world further from directly experienced reality than that of our Medieval ancestors, which raises the question of whether we truly know more than they, or perhaps much less.

We have, therefore, to face the possibility that our perception of the world beyond our immediate experience is largely if not entirely false, a construct of political propaganda or mental manipulation for commercial ends. That this can be true not only of the relatively unsophisticated, but of both intelligent and intellectual persons is confirmed by Ron Unz in an essay entitled Our America Pravda:

The realization that the world is often quite different from what is presented in our leading newspapers and magazines is not an easy conclusion for most educated Americans to accept, or at least that was true in my own case. For decades, I have closely read the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and one or two other major newspapers every morning, supplemented by a wide variety of weekly or monthly opinion magazines. Their biases in certain areas had always been apparent to me. But I felt confident that by comparing and contrasting the claims of these different publications and applying some common sense, I could obtain a reasonably accurate version of reality. I was mistaken.

Aside from the evidence of our own senses, almost everything we know about the past or the news of today comes from bits of ink on paper or colored pixels on a screen …

Unz then expresses the hope that the Internet, which “has vastly widened the range of information available to us” provides the possibility “of extracting vital nuggets of truth from vast mountains of falsehood.”

But in an era of government-sponsored cognitive infiltration via the Internet, why would anyone share Unz’s confidence that the Internet will allow us a clearer view of reality?

The only solution, that I can see to the epistemological challenges created by the media, including the Internet, is a greater recognition of the importance not only of the logical analysis of claims about the world, particularly political claims, but of empirical verification.

With so many who are not only intent on finding meaning in their lives, but have the means to indulge that desire, a solution, partial at least, may arise through a new industry of what will come to be known as information tourism.

Travel for personal edification and amusement has, of course, an ancient history. But a mass pursuit of travel for the primary or sole purpose of self-education is only now emerging. The trend is evident particularly among environmentalists, some of whom, like those frozen into the Antarctic ice at mid-summer, will likely have revised their understanding of issued previously known to them only via the printed word or the pixelated image.

More harrowing information tourism packages may soon be offered that take earnest seekers after truth to war zones, disaster zones, favelas, abbatoirs, sausage factories, scenes of plutocratic debauchery, etc., etc. The possibilities seem endless.

Not that the information tourist will necessarily be exempt from cognitive infiltration. Potemkin Tours, operated under contract from the US Office of Information by the Walt Disney Company, perhaps, could well provide earnest tourists an opportunity to visit model homeless shelters and FEMA camps where otherwise unemployed actors act the part of happy homeless or unemployed folk eating free wholesome meals in bright, clean cafeterias, in exchange for light labor in well-lit, air-conditioned workshops, sowing shirts and jeans for Levi or assembling cell phones for Apple in return for a generous cash allowance for cigarettes, razor blades, etc., etc.

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