Unbanning our Minds
Evil always carries the seeds of its own destruction…Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers
What is the power that allows some minds to think patiently and clearly while everyone around them is panicking? Some seem blessed with an inner truth detector that overrides fear-soaked messaging, no matter what the source. They act only on confirmed evidence, whatever the pressure. As the pandemic begins to fade, it has become clear to many that the initial fears seem unjustified by the actual death totals.
Consider the case of Sweden. It had no forced lockdowns, no mandatory economic shutdown, did not require face masks, and preserved its economic vitality better than most of its neighbors while experiencing one of the lowest COVID-19 death rates in Europe. Their policy, guided by common sense and thinking through the health threat based on verified information, appears to have tamed the virus through herd immunity while sustaining the country’s economic health.
What gives some medical experts the backbone to risk reputation and livelihood by independently evaluating the available medical evidence and publishing their findings even when it contradicts the official narrative?
Consider the case of Sucharit Bhakdi, a German infection epidemiologist, who was willing to take a stand against overwhelming pressure to conform at the height of the COVID-19 panic. Peter Selg, a German doctor, described the consequences of Dr. Bhakdi’s commitment to the principles of honest science, “If, after extensive research, people such as Sucharit Bhakdi arrive at completely different numbers of infections, deaths, and therefore lethality, if they arrive at different results, questions, and proposals than those presented by the media experts and proceed to publicly represent their points of view, then they find themselves exposed to a massive wave of criticism and defamation; they are immediately pushed into the camp of the ‘conspiracy theorists,’ which has thus become a generalizing pool of all dissenting opinions, a dubious, closely observed virtual refugee camp.” (Selg 2020).
Other eminent names could be added to the list of those willing to risk their reputations in order to provide fact-based guidance, such Dr. John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist and one of the most-cited scientists in the world, whose video analyzing COVID19 statistics was banned from YouTube because it contained claims that deviated from the official narrative.
It appears that the real enemy of the “fact-checkers” is the ability to dispassionately sift through a stack of evidence and reach independent conclusions. Years from now, we may look back at the panic-driven decisions and wonder what intellectual disease might have induced such a loss of objectivity. The well-known analyst of the economics of technology, Shoshana Zuboff, identified this disease as “… the instinct to bow down before the conqueror of the moment, to accept the existing trend as irreversible.” (Zuboff 2019, 523)
To resist the invisible tyrant demands an exacting discipline of objectivity, and a willingness to put aside what we are asked to believe, or what we would like to believe, even if the truth makes us deeply uncomfortable. To counteract mindless stampedes on either side of the debates, we must apply our critical thinking skills to the facts that impact our lives. Only the truth can heal our fear-induced fantasies.
Trading freedom for safety seems like a reasonable exchange to many. “It is not that certain human capacities, intellectual capacities for instance, become stunted or destroyed, but rather that the upsurge of power makes such an overwhelming impression that men are deprived of their independent judgment, and – more or less unconsciously – give up trying to assess the new state of affairs for themselves.” (Bonhoeffer 1971, 8-9)
When the “upsurge of power” takes the form of an invisible deadly enemy, most people quickly trade their independent judgment for the promise of safety. It is well to keep in mind that when we are dealing with someone seized by fear, we are usually talking to a set of slogans and spells aimed at driving away the demon, not a human being capable of critically analysing the facts. In such cases, a sense of calm and good humor can help dispel the oppressive atmosphere. All of us are subject to irrational fear in the face of the unknown. Yet, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “… the power of some needs the folly of the others.” (Bonhoeffer 1971, 8)
Those capable of mastering their fear are much likelier to find the truth than those who chase the phantoms conjured up by photogenic pundits. In addition to mainstream news, social media has been crafted by some of the most brilliant minds in the tech world in order to predict and control user behavior.See Zuboff, Shoshana. 2019. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, (New York: Hatchette Book Group). This recent book by a Harvard professor … Continue reading
It is well-known that the major social media platforms receive most of their revenue through advertising, but many are unaware that the size of their profit depends directly on the predictability of their users. Zuboff describes the user data collection process as follows, “Although some of these data are applied to product or service improvement, the rest are declared as a proprietary behavioral surplus, fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence,’ and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later. Finally, these prediction products are traded in a new kind of
marketplace for behavioral predictions that I call behavioral futures markets.” (Zuboff 2019, 8)
Google, Facebook, and many other platforms harvest data concerning our habits, preferences, and decisions. This data is used to assemble profile packages that provide intimate insight into how to “nudge, tune, herd, manipulate, and modify” (Zuboff 2019, 202) user behavior. The platforms sell these packages to advertisers and other third parties. The packages allow choice architects to personalize the platform interface so that users can be algorithmically trained to behave in ways that maximize company revenues. These methods are equally effective for individually-targeted political propaganda – a practice known as “microtargeting.”
Each of us has an instinct for the truth, but it is often quashed by online algorithms devised to encase us in a filter bubble consisting of those who share our beliefs. However, we can consciously free ourselves from such intellectual isolation. Our freedom can be jumpstarted by asking ourselves, “Is it more important that I dominate the situation through ‘correct’ information or that the truth prevails over my ego?” Perhaps we wish to inflate our egos by identifying with the official story against the “disinformation” being spread by those who don’t seem to care about public health. Or vice versa, perhaps we want to show our superior insight into the hidden agenda of the elite. In either case, we risk losing the golden thread of truth that guides us through the online maze because we’ve privileged our own rightness over the truth in the secret hiding places of the heart.
Like a “fact-checker”, we have been given an official viewpoint to maintain and our self-esteem depends on the effectiveness of our defense. Truth can only exist in free human spirits.
Online conditioning tends to atrophy the mental muscles required to discern the truth. Similarly, Google searching trains us to be lazy and impatient. We demand that perfect results appear within seconds after typing a few key phrases. We also expect to quickly understand complex topics by using Wikipedia or some other “authoritative” source. But we must first cultivate an instinct for the truth offline before any of these sources can be of value. The web consists of nothing but bits stored in processors. Truth can only exist in human minds and hearts. If it doesn’t exist there, then it is nowhere to be found.
Online behavioral conditioning is designed to make us behave like simple machines – cybernetic devices lacking free will. In their astute analysis of the programmed environment rapidly enveloping us titled Re-Engineering Humanity (Frischman and Selinger 2018), the authors characterize one possible endpoint of our current digital evolution as follows, “One extreme scenario that’s worth considering is that the smart programming of the future will require us to automatically accept the shots that algorithms call. Perhaps the only way we’ll be able to do all the things that smart systems require will be for humans to accept a new lot in life and behave like simple machines.” (Frischman and Selinger 2018, 6)
The main goal of online conditioning is train us to behave as consistently as possible with the consumer segment to which we have been assigned. In order to maximize platform profits, users must conform as closely as possible to the behaviors assigned to their profile classification. Simple machines have no need for truth.
Fortunately, our minds have not yet been reduced to machines, simple or otherwise. Whereas conditioned minds tend to play back digitally implanted thoughts, self-motivated human beings are capable of non-mechanical leaps of insight. However, when we habitually surrender to algorithmically selected entertainment, we tend to let go of the capabilities needed to recognize the truth. To advance our understanding, we must regain control over our attention and direct it toward self-formulated goals. Truth can only be “… generated actively and freely, by means of exertion and the application of one’s own strength.” (Fichte 1988, 227)
We can claim ownership only for the truths that we have forged through our own reflection. Unfortunately, most simply drink their fill from the flow of automated forgetfulness. Instead of remaining stuck in the robotic mind, we can approach questions of truth confident that we possess all the tools necessary to find it once we have access to the facts. These tools are the ability to see through logical fallacies, a sense for the internal consistency of information, along with the ability to identify honest, independent, and expert voices. Finding the truth requires “… a youthful spirit of brave trust and, as it were, a reckless tossing away of anxious self-preservation, a relinquishment of all egoistic bias toward mere confirmation of the self …” (Pieper 1965, 21). To discover the truth, I must have enough courage to let it lead me where it will.
The COVID-19 pandemic has given us a precious opportunity to witness and support those willing to risk comfort and reputation for the sake of truth. When we consider the courageous leadership of Sucharit Bhakdi and John Ioannidis among many others, the massive confusion of
our times momentarily lifts and the central importance of independent thinking blazes up like the morning sun. “Perceiving such deeds has renewed my sense of veneration for the human potential, and reminded me of what I understand to be the very purpose of human evolution: to be able to experience a love of truth so strong that it eclipses the desire for personal comfort in life, and thereby also overpowers the willingness to accept what one regards as illogic and untruth forced upon humanity from outside.” (Selg 2020)
Wherever power is allowed to define truth, human freedom must be sacrificed.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1971. Letters and Papers from Prison. New York: Macmillan Publishing.
Fichte, Johann Gottlieb. 1988. Fichte: Early Philosophical Writings. Cornell University Press. https://archive.org/details/fichteearlyphilo00fich/page/230/mode/2up.
Frischman, Brett, and Evan Selinger. 2018. Re-Engineering Humanity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Pieper, Josef. 1965. The Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance.Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press.
Selg, Peter. 2020. “A Medicalized Society?” Deepening Anthroposophy, July 3: 9-24.
Zuboff, Shoshana. 2019. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. Kindle Edition. New York: Hatchette Book Group.
|↩1||See Zuboff, Shoshana. 2019. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, (New York: Hatchette Book Group). This recent book by a Harvard professor emeritus, is the one of the most in-depth studies of the economic factors behind the drive to predict and control user behavior currently available. It is written in an accessible style and with a passion for the moral consequences of surveillance capitalism.|