If we can't understand what's happening in the world, how can we make the right decisions when addressing our greatest systemic challenges?
The epistemic crisis, a crisis of our collective sensemaking, is one of the most pressing challenges we face today. Behind instances like the near-collapse of American democracy and COVID-19 conspiracy theories is a broken "information ecology" where there are misaligned incentives for our sources of information.
If we turn solely into channels that confirm our existing political views, how can democracy function? And how might we learn from the recent weaponization of social media to spread misinformation and propaganda?
This deep dive was created with the help of Daniel Schmachtenberger and his team. His Rebel Wisdom video series, The War on Sensemaking, is essential content on this topic.
Epistemic Crisis Essentials:
Collective sensemaking is broken
- Rather than providing the kind of information that equips people to understand the world, our media environment is misinforming, polarizing, and outraging people.
- As a result of a dysfunctional media environment and public education system, democracy is breaking down.
The shift in the media landscape destabilized our sensemaking
- In the last 20 years, the internet and social media have radically transformed and fragmented the media landscape, shifting from a broadcast model to a decentralized one
- At the same time, the information we are surrounded by — news, scientific journals, social media — has been flooded with contradictory, incomplete, and incorrect information
- Simultaneously, large broadcast media has consolidated, which has increased editorial politicization and bias and decreased journalistic freedom
- In an environment of information overwhelm, with declining trust on all levels and no shared sense of reality or “trusted authority,” citizens and decision-makers struggle to make sense of an increasingly complex world
Social media has shallowed intellects and deepened polarization
- Search engine and social media algorithms — which select for addictive, hyper normal stimuli to increase time spent online — are driving tribalism, limbic hijacks, and desensitization
- This produces shorter attention spans, more addiction, and deepens polarization — even without this as an explicit goal
- This is happening invisibly to many people; because people’s sense of the world and themselves is highly mediated through the media, they don't and can’t know how distorted the view is
- Agenda-driven reporting on the problems further drives polarization, radicalization, limbic hijack, tribalism, and desperation that then themselves become major new causes of problems, creating a downward cycle
Breakdown of sensemaking causes institutional corruption and decay
- Information overwhelm has already made it difficult for leaders to govern and navigate complexity, but intentional information warfare makes it exponentially harder
- In the midst of an information war, many sources of legitimate authority have been captured and corrupted in ways that have led to counter-responses, leaving no remaining shared trusted sources of ground information
- As world views fragment, trust in authorities declines, and sensemaking becomes more difficult, existing social institutions — which require social trust and a shared sense of reality in order to function coherently — begin to break down
A breakdown in our sensemaking leads to conflict
- There is enough embodied conflict energy around enough topics that it is easy to provoke it, independent of real changes in the world
- The weaponization of complexity and intellect has led to anti-intellectualism as a counter-weapon
- The catastrophic nature of near-term future scenarios, combined with them being mediated through the commons, makes agreeing to disagree nearly impossible
- The web has made stochastic terrorism and many methods of dividing a people to turn an enemy on itself profoundly easy
The world is currently in a highly multipolar, unconventional war
- The major front is being fought through narrative and information warfare
- In our new media landscape, states realized that conducting narrative warfare on whole populations is more effective toward their strategic objectives than conventional military action
- In a narrative war, the warriors, the weapons, and the contested territory are human minds
- State and non-state actors intentionally pollute the information ecology with the intent to influence & disinform
- As a result, the social conflict energy is rapidly rising towards points of inexorable widespread violence and social breakdown
The complexity of our challenges exceeds our sensemaking
- The challenges we face are more complex than can be adequately understood through single epistemologies or narratives. They require higher-order epistemics than are taught to the general population or even the information professionals trying to figure them out
- The combination of the total amount of information (on any critical topic) with unintentional misinformation and intentional disinformation, as well as concealed information, has made sensemaking nearly impossible
- As a result, most people have given up on actual epistemics in favor of tribalism - where the tribal chiefs aren’t doing good epistemics either
We have reached the limits of our intellectual traditions
- The modern enlightenment gave rise to this country and the scientific and industrial revolution, and thus to the globalized high-tech world we know. In addition to its great success in understanding and building, it produced many serious consequences
- Postmodernism and the counterculture can be thought of as another enlightenment that was focused on much needed critique and deconstruction, but it lacked reconstruction
- The political division can be seen as connected to a philosophical divide between a critique of building/winning, and regressive ways of trying to build and win that don't factor in the real insights of the postmodern enlightenment and real problems of premodern and modern enlightenment politics
What is required is nothing short of a new intellectual renaissance
- A new ‘metamodern’ enlightenment is needed that rightly utilizes the new information technology tools and supports new types of social systems and infrastructure
- The catastrophic nature of near term future scenarios, combined with them being mediated through the commons, makes agreeing to disagree nearly impossible
- Public education (of the type that prepare people for effective sense making and civic engagement) and the 4th estate are both necessary prerequisites for meaningful democratic involvement, and have both eroded in the US to levels far below minimum adequate for civility or self governance
Daniel sees the challenges outlined above as the key existential risk facing humanity, and has created The Consilience Project to begin to address them. The Consilience Project aims to create a vertical attractor for people seeking, and capable of engaging with, multi-perspectival dialectical synthesis with empirical grounding. The goal isn’t just to give people better information — core to its mission is also to teach people how to improve their own information processing. By doing so, it aims to help people gain sovereignty and defend against information warfare. The ultimate objective is to meaningfully upgrade the quality of the information space around current events, upgrade the epistemic commons, heal ubiquitous nihilism, and upgrade collective intelligence writ large.