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Too Big to Perceive Problems

There’s an issue at the intersections of empiricism, the philosophy of technology, and sociology that has been on my mind having recently read Propaganda and only becomes more urgent as the Israel-Hamas War and subsequent competing propaganda campaigns continue to unfold. It provides space for contemporary propaganda to operate, from mainstream climate denialism to fringe Flat Earth theory. And it is simply that many problems occupying the minds of people in technological societies are too big to be perceived.

Refresher on empiricism

Empiricism is an epistemological view that ascribes all knowledge to sense experience. The scientific method, a loop of experimentation, observation, and falsification from which scientific knowledge develops, is based on empirical evidence.

While empiricism is not without criticism, in a discussion among peers having direct experience lends credence to one’s words, and underpins commonly accepted answers to the key question that concerns us here, which is “how do you know that?” The fastest route to believability in everyday life is to argue from facts that you yourself witnessed and experienced.

Passing the perception check

Given the value that humans place on first-hand experience, it should not come as a surprise that the validation and acceptance of some knowledge was dependent on humankind’s ability to perceive the underlying phenomenon. Microscopy allowed scientists to observe microorganisms and further develop the germ theory of disease, for example. 1972’s ‘The Blue Marble’, a photograph of Earth from orbit, allowed humanity to see itself in its greater global context, and that same globe’s context within the vacuum of space. Global temperatures, and therefore the trend of global warming, are measured through the combined efforts of multiple government agencies including NASA and the JMA. Many of us are surrounded by and depend on silent and invisible radio waves, every day of our lives. Despite our inability to directly perceive electromagnetic radiation we are nonetheless able to transmit and receive radio waves using electronic devices.

This is all to say that there are phenomena in our world that cannot be apprehended by human beings unassisted. From the aforementioned microscope to radio receivers, technology expands the range of phenomena we are able to perceive and verify empirically.

That is if you have access to a microscope. If you can afford a Wi-Fi enabled device. You could begin observing the weather at a distance of up to 100km with Doppler weather radar, for the low cost of $150,000. You can take a sub-orbital spaceflight and see the Flat Earth for yourself, if you have $250,000 burning a hole in your pocket. (Or, if you’d be satisified with a photograph, you could snap a picture using a digital camera and $150 weather balloon.)

Technological perception de-buffs

While the technological society has expanded humanity’s collective perception, the individual among the mass is left to take second- if not third- or fourth-hand the observations made by technicians. Many such observations are, moreover, made at the great expense of nation-states and multinational corporations with equipment that only organizations of that scale can currently summon the resources to obtain and employ. Our shared understanding about reality is based in part on empirical evidence that is unlikely if not impossible to be verified or disproven by any one individual, or a group of lesser means.

This is as true of the natural sciences as it is of social sciences. In social sciences the collection of and access to data, and to the statistical models needed to analyze that data, are the limiting factors. In history, access to primary sources and the overwhelming volume of sources that need to be assessed and contextualized add difficulty for any one person seeking to give an accurate interpretation and accounting of events. Leveraging the predictive power of a large language model requires all of these, in addition to incredible computational resources.

As a member of a technological society this is fine so long as you are willing to trust institutions, public and private, to faithfully relay their observations to the general public. In our time, at the beginning of the 21st century, many people do not. Add to this the falsifiability of audio, images, and video with and without the assistance of artificial intelligence, as well as the implicit biases of supposedly objective artificial intelligence models and training, and now even genuine empirical evidence is lost within a sea of counterfeits.

The very existence of fabricated evidence - AI generated or otherwise - casts doubt on all evidence. The existence of propaganda techniques calls into question the truthfulness of all institutions public and private. What is a person to do?

David Brooks was right one time

I understand the desire of people, especially those who are or consider themselves to be highly educated, to speak authoritatively on problems that are too big for them to perceive. This is hubris.

This sounds anti-intellectual, but it’s a fact of life in technological society. One that requires, if anything, a greater exercise of intellect to notice and respond to. While speculating and arguing about the details of phenomena too big for our perception provides some small amount of fun, and for many online influencers forms the very basis of their work, we must be critical of these practices. What do they actually accomplish? More importantly, what have we allowed to go unnoticed while our time and attention have been tied up sifting through mountains of information and misinformation concerning problems too big for us to solve on our own?

Conservative commentator David Brooks was right when he advocated for a return to localist politics. He was naturally very wrong about the structure and form those politics should take, but he accurately described the epistemological problem at the heart of national and international politics, the impotence of national politicians in technological society, and correctly identified local politics as the avenue by which people - especially young people - can meaningfully characterize problems that they really have a chance to solve.

Localism as a political philosophy might be viewed as synonymous with isolationism, or characterized by an emphasis on local production and consumption. Here I refer only to localism in the sense put forth by Brooks, which emphasizes the re-localization of political problems and organization, such that problems become more easily definable and solutions more easily created. The example provided by Brooks of the problem of homelessness is apt. There is a choice to be made between developing the most rational and empirically validated understanding of homelessness through study and long bouts of Facebook comment argumentation, or spending that same time and effort actually finding shelter for the person sleeping outside your building and learning what they would need to be able to stay housed.

This is not to say that events or phenomena of international importance like the Israel-Hamas War, global warming, or past and future global pandemics are somehow not at all worthy of our attention or mere distraction. Nor would I allow anyone to say that because I refuse to center these issues in my life, I am callous and do not care. Rather, there needs to be a degree of humility with regards to what one is genuinely able to know and to understand, and a re-centering of attention towards those issues where there is hope that adequate understanding may be possible.