Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – the more things change, the more they stay the same. Said to be an old French proverb, but also attributed to Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (1808 – 1890), French novelist, journalist and one-time editor of Le Figaro. In the St James translation of The Bible, Solomon is said to pronounce in Ecclesiastes: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” Every generation, as we older people know, confidently pronounces the most damning prognosis on the future of society and even the world because of the vices of the new generation, while the new generation “knowingly” chuckles that they know what they are doing and all is well; the old generation simply don’t understand.
So maybe, if I (and other much better qualified commentators) get the feeling that we are witnessing the workings of factors that will bring about major change, it really is just a minor blip in the slow march of cosmic determinism, and, actually, it has been before (just in a different form), and, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – at a fundamental level everything really remains the same.
If one is foolhardy enough to take the plunge into predicting the future, as I am about to (well, sort of), one faces a problem: The future changes – or does it? Even when there are identifiable forces at work that seem to indicate change, at the level of human experience we are living in an adaptive system, and maybe it always reverts to some mean over time?
So maybe I’m as foolhardy as the futurologists when I comment that we are witnessing a time of warp-speed manipulation of perception and opinion – not just of a small subset of society, but of major portions of entire nations, and that this manipulation is likely to lead to highly unstable outcomes, even less predictable than the “old” future used to be.
Now of course manipulation of perceptions of groups of people, in particular of electorates by politicians is as old as the known history of mankind – just take the time to read up about that particularly slick operator of ancient Greek times, Alcibiades, and more recently Hitler and more recently the regime of North Korea, or, dare I say it, a certain Mr Trump; in fact almost all politicians and governments do it, I guess, as a matter of course.
But what I think has changed is what I will refer to as the three S’s – Speed, Spread and Saturation. Even the humblest operator can potentially now very quickly (Speed) reach a huge number of people (Spread), who are constantly fed with information, some true, some half-true, some false, which they seem to have an incredible capacity to (I suspect mostly unthinkingly) gobble up through their interconnected devices (Saturation), so that their inability ability to form a rational and unbiased perception is basically overwhelmed.
Not that “rational and unbiased opinion” has ever been common – on the contrary. It is well documented and observed in everyday life that even reliable facts that contradict an adopted point of view typically do not change people’s perspective. If the facts are given any consideration, it is often selective, so that it will support the adopted view – the so-called conformation bias. Even graduates and post-graduates, who should know better, are apparently as guilty as any layman.
Now add to this mixture (of the three S’s and Conformation Bias), what two cognitive scientists at Yale, Sloman and Fernbach, call the “illusion of explanatory depth” – the belief people commonly hold that they understand something that they actually do not – not fundamentally; maybe just functionally, or at such a broad level that if they were asked to explain their understanding, it is totally meaningless, or absurd. Spread is probably partly to blame for this, but also, Sloman and Fernbach, suggest, a kind of naïve acceptance of the opinions of “experts”, or people they trust, or they think should know, or even just of a few (not necessarily qualified) peers that happen to concur with them.
Grievances, strong beliefs, desires, emotions have always been there and have always been exploited by slick operators. Examples abound, each with their unique circumstances, but fundamentally similar: Mass mobilisation of public opinion in the run-up to the First and Second World Wars, various religious fervours that came and went over time – remnants of some which still remain, the Witches of Salem phenomenon, the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon, even a sudden mass belief in the wondrous curative properties of some obscure herbal concoction, or the near levitation-imparting powers of a simple plastic band with a piece of cheap metal imbedded in it…
It seems if one could find an area where people hold strong grievances, or emotions, or preferences or such, then one could start a powerful self-reinforcing cycle: People hold strong views or have strong desires, and therefore they are inclined to be biased. They are overloaded with information, and rational processing and contextualising of confusing arrays of information is mostly beyond the mental energies and/or capacities of most anyway. So if someone talks a simple Talk that, although somewhat bizarre if argued against the full context of the real facts, holds elements of truth that address their emotion, people will gratefully adopt the Preferred Talk without further considering all the other talk. If this Preferred Talk is now directed with Speed and over a wide Spread, like through modern social media, tsunamis of beliefs and their accompanying emotions can be brought about very quickly and very widely.
It becomes self-reinforcing – the more the tsunami builds, the more people believe in the Preferred Talk and the less they are prepared to listen to alternative facts, or the more they twist them to justify their belief in the Talk. They get swept along by the “illusion of explanatory depth.” The twisted versions of the real facts and their implications are even bounced back with the same Speed and Spread, presented as, hold your breath, the correct version of the truth. Some that, at times, might have experienced the dangerous inclination to descend into rigorous rational analysis may feel a niggle of discomfort or guilt, even hide the fact that they subscribe to the Talk, but they are gradually sucked in for reasons of intellectual laziness, or ignorance, or social or political expediency.
So, is the world now doomed to fall victim to waves of upheaval created by selective messaging, nuanced truths and plain untruths, very quickly spread over huge receptive audiences? Are we again approaching the kind of world that Yeats described in 1919, in the aftermath of the World War 1:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
There is little doubt that we have been witnessing the three S’s, “conformation bias” and the “illusion of explanatory depth” in synchronised action in recent times – the Brexit tsunami, or the Trump tsunami. But if I may be so presumptuous to quote myself just to make a point: “…at the level of human experience, we are living in an adaptive system, and maybe it always reverts to some mean over time.” Perhaps my observations of mass perceptional instability is just alarmist; people will relatively quickly realise that they have been conned and the deceivers and their methods will be unmasked and people will begin to treat them like other purportedly real events that are actually hoaxes, like April Fool jokes. Some argue that this explosive dispersion of information promotes debate, leads to the democratisation thereof by putting it all in the public domain and ultimately leads to purer versions of the truth. After all, sanity is prevailing. Wilders lost badly in Holland just this week.
Maybe, but apart from the fact that the second argument presupposes widespread rational analytical capabilities (which is hardly the case), both these two counter-arguments, in a sense, vindicates the postulation of what I referred to above as “mass perceptional instability”: while the healthy democratic debate and the process of wizening up is happening, the mass perceptional instability is too, and it precedes both – its very fact is what causes the debate and the learning to start. To quote from the Economist: “Another reason to think that this may not be the high-water mark for populism is that Mr Wilders has shown how to drag politics in your own direction even without winning power. Mr Rutte has held him off in part by adopting some of his language.” I rest my case.
I think we can be sure that we as shoppers, casual readers, inquisitive browsers, electorates (especially electorates), will be subjected to tumults of truths, half-truths and untruths broadcast at Speeds and Spreads far greater than was possible through “old” media channels – print, television and radio.
Even serious scientists do not escape. Conclusions reached by published results, long the mainstay of reliable scientific information is becoming unreliable: “Basing decisions to publish (Implied meaning: outside recognised scientific channels) on the direction and significance of research results has led to a biased scientific record that does not represent the actual state of knowledge and undermines the ability of science to self-correct. The quest for positive results encourages numerous questionable research practices — “the steroids of scientific competition” — such as HARKing (hypothesizing after the results are known) and P-hacking (collecting or selecting data or statistical analyses until non-significant results become significant).”
The question really is, can we as a global community learn fast enough to contextualise it all and work through it analytically and rationally before we form perceptions – and cause more and more other perceptions to be formed in that direction? Our history does not provide us with encouraging evidence of this; not even at the tame rate of information flow we had to cope with from the “old” media.
It seems to me all we can say about the future is that it will change – suddenly, precipitously, often incongruously. I wonder where we will end up…
 Ecclesiastes 1:9, The Holy Bible, King James version, Collins USA.
 William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), The Second Coming
 My own comment.
 Editorial: Promoting reproducibility with registered reports, Nature Human Behaviour, 17th March 2017