Economist Jeffrey A. Tucker, president of the Brownstone Institute, shares some thoughts about what he learned about the spread and management of information from the response to COVID-19. Two things he learned are especially worth noting.
At one time, Tucker, who describes himself as a “Victorian Whig” (an old-fashioned liberal), believed that merely giving people access to more accurate information would improve our response to crises. He had good reason to believe that: Historically, dictators like Stalin, Hitler, or Xi have restricted access to information in order to keep the public easy to control. So what happened when, in the Western world, the internet opened the dam?
The speed and abundance of information actually amplified error. At the height of the pandemic response, anyone could have looked up the demographics of risk, the failings of PCR and masks, the history and significance of natural immunity, the absurdities of plexiglass and capacity restrictions, the utter futility of travel limits and curfews, the pointless brutality of school closures. It was all there, not just on random blogs but also in the scholarly literature.Jeffrey A. Tucker, “How the Pandemic Response Changed My Thinking” at Epoch Times ( June 7, 2022)
The problem was, many people were not even trying to make sound judgments:
Localized fear, parochial germophobia, general innumeracy, superstitious trust in talismans, meaningless ritualism, and population-wide ignorance of the achievements of cell biology overrode rational argumentation and rigorous science. It turns out that floods of information, even when it includes that which is accurate, is not enough to overcome weak judgment, a lack of wisdom, and moral cowardice.Jeffrey A. Tucker, “How the Pandemic Response Changed My Thinking” at Epoch Times ( June 7, 2022)
A bit harsh, perhaps? In fairness to the many panic-stricken people, a practical issue — to do with the very nature of information — begs to be aired here. As design theorist William Dembski discusses in Being as Communion (Routledge, 2014), information is not causal. It does not make us wise. It does not make anything happen on its own.
A person who has just listened to a lucid discussion of the coronavirus could still be disinfecting the smartphone after using it to speak with someone who has COVID. Using (or abusing) information is a matter of choice, of free will.
Information is not created by a tidal wave of facts but by choosing to rule out possibilities. For example, when trying to determine how to get to a friend’s picnic, we choose a route that eliminates countless other ones.
In short, the assumption that simply making more facts available will improve levels of information awareness and management fails to take into account the nature of information. It is connective, not causal. We must choose to connect. The information does nothing by itself.
For Tucker, another uncomfortable discovery was the way success has changed once anti-authoritarian Big Tech and its social media:
In the early years of their founding, companies like Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and even Facebook had a libertarian ethos bound up with the ideas of industrial disruption, free flow of ideas, and democratic participation. Legacy media was terrified. We came to see the new companies as the good guys and the old media as the bad guys. I wrote whole books heralding the dawn of the new, which in turn was connected to my confidence that more information would allow the best information to dominate public debate.Jeffrey A. Tucker, “How the Pandemic Response Changed My Thinking” at Epoch Times ( June 7, 2022)
But that was before Big Tech’s new social media began to eclipse legacy mainstream media and become powerful players in their own right…
At some point in this trajectory, all these institutions became captured by a different ethos. How precisely this came to be has a mix of explanations. Regardless, it happened, and this became incredibly obvious and painful during the pandemic, as these CEOs volunteered their efforts to amplify CDC and WHO information no matter how wrong it turned out to be. The more users pushed back, the more brutal tactics of censorship and cancellation became the norm.
Clearly, I had not anticipated this but I should have.Jeffrey A. Tucker, “How the Pandemic Response Changed My Thinking” at Epoch Times ( June 7, 2022)
Indeed. What happened over the last few decades is a familiar story in history. Big Tech moguls got used to power and learned to like it, especially the power to shape users’ thinking. It was doubtless easy to convince themselves that they had a responsibility to do so, a responsibility that included censoring minority points of view about the COVID pandemic. Some of these points of view were surely unwise but others turned out to be science-based, supported by evidence, and reasonable — relative to the panics that were promoted in their place.
As for legacy mainstream media, Big Tech appears to have acquired all of their historic vices and none of their historic virtues. Whistleblowers against government and corporate overreach are now just as likely to contact embattled independent accountability groups or politicians as to use either legacy media or social media. And they are probably just as well off. Once a medium becomes part of the power structure, it necessarily seeks to control information, rather than just present it.
The Brownstone Institute was founded in May 2021 to address the “willingness on the part of the public and officials to relinquish freedom and fundamental human rights in the name of managing a public health crisis, which was not managed well in most countries.”
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