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On the Limits of The Internet [Trenchant Edges]
Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, the newsletter thing where I rant a bit about stuff that interests me.
This week has been overwhelmingly good despite some frustrating bits. I’ve been taking tax prep classes for one of those big chain preparers, so I’ve done a lot of taking the bus into town and seeing parts of Pittsburgh I like.
A nice change of pace from being more or less homebound over the last few years.
The downside is I’m in a lot more pain. Oh, and I was banned from Facebook for typically facile reasons. So that’s 5 months and some change of 2021.
The other downside is I’ve not done much other than these classes.
But I don’t want to talk about that.
I’ve been thinking about the failures of Tech Optimism’s view of the Internet and The Californian Ideology. And it seems like folks have made a pretty fundamental mistake in assuming that “all information will be online” translates to, “people will have access to all information”, let alone the much more important, “people will have access to accurate information.”
The Machinery of History
When I was trying to understand what the “Internet of Things” was and what it might mean for people, I heard someone describe the IoT as the beginning of history.
I don’t remember who said it, but it got me thinking about the ways time hides information and the difficulty of learning what something was like in the past. And *then* you add the way many agents throughout history worked to eliminate information they didn’t want people to know about.
We could talk about how Richard Helms ordered the destruction of MK Ultra records in 1972 or war censorship among all the powers in WW1 & WW2, but the example I’m most interested in is the Nag Hammadi Library.
Discovered in 1945, the Nag Hammadi Library a collection of early Christian and Gnostic texts discovered near the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi. It included 52, mostly gnostic, codexes and an altered/partial version of Plato’s Republic.
The Nag Hammadi Library is interesting because prior to its discovery, almost everything known about ancient gnostics came from their detractors, like Irenaeus of Smyrna’s Against Heresies.
This helped generate what I refer to as the Gnostic Meme, a kind of perennial heresy in Christendom, inverting the usual dualism and spinning out into usually paranoid fantasies about grand conspiracies and secret rulers.
The point is that direct knowledge of the past isn’t possible, so we have to look at surviving works. The Nag Hammadi Library is more significant for what it teaches us about how much has never been found within history. You don’t even need to go that far back for a clear example:
The accounting firm Arthur Anderson admitted to having destroyed a mountain of documents about Enron’s various business dealings and crimes.
If we assume this is a consistent process, we’re forced to admit that Old Donald Rumsfeld’s “Known unknowns” and “Unknown Unknowns” are categories we can’t even really estimate the size of.
And that’s without quoting a bigger issue: That histories themselves are often written by the winners ala Napoleon. But perhaps a better example would be Bengal Famine Enthusiast Winston Churchill.
Now, the academic discipline of history has realized these issues and over the last century or so, has put in real effort in broadening the subject of history from so-called Great Men to the regular people often butchered for their glory. But even if that project has been a total success, we have to admit that there’s still several thousand years where primary sources written by the losers of history are rare.
Then we also need to admit that winners and losers are notoriously slippery concepts. The Roman Emperor Nero was supposed to be struck from the record and never mentioned again in a practice called Damnatio Memoriae, but the purge was incomplete and both other elites and Roman society at large found reasons to keep bringing him up.
Maybe the greatest example of this kind of purge was the Contention of a Hundred Schools of Thought in ancient China, where there was a several hundred-year outpouring of intellectual creativity that was crushed by the rise of the Qin Dynasty.
And only a handful of what was written down has survived until today.
We can supplement this within history via archeology and other methods of studying physical remains, but that still leaves large gaps. The same problem exists even in biology where whole swaths of the Earth’s Tree of Life don’t have bones that fossilize, greatly reducing the likelihood any particular creature’s remains would survive to the present day.
But what does all this have to do with the Internet?
Do Your Own Research
TLDR: most people skilled at finding information on the Internet end up biasing information towards what’s easily accessible on the Internet.
One of the real failures of conspiracy theorist culture over the decades is how few conspiracy theorists do anything that might actually unveil the secrets in question.
Contrast the methodology of Alex Jones or Qanon with the journalism that teased out Watergate.
Jones has a few narratives in mind, mostly from previous John Birch-aligned groups like Gary Allen, who he repeats and spins all information to fit. His conclusions are pre-set. Even his one really successful attempt at journalism, infiltrating the Bohemian Grove, was really more about making plausible-seeming insinuations than proving any of his narratives.
Jones has been claiming anything vaguely vaccine-related will lead to forced vaccinations at gunpoint, camps for dissidents, and bioweapons killing the majority of life on earth for 20 years. He’s been wrong the whole time. And he counts anything within a step of a free association of anything he’s said happening as being correct. There’s no way to lose that kind of game.
Likewise, Qanon decoders have a small slew of predetermined conclusions they’ve got to fit all information into. There’s a secret cabal of elite pedophiles working together to rob everyone on the planet and Donald Trump is leading a different secret cabal of elite military/intelligence people to stop them.
Let’s take an example: That one time when Qanon harassed a school fundraiser out of existence
In the first case, a Qanon Decoder decided that former FBI director James Comey had been hiding his plans for an attack on a school in a tweet about 5 jobs he had.
So they decided it was an acrostic and googled GVCSF, found the Grass Valley Charter School Foundation, and decided Comey was taking advanced credit for an attack on the school.
They flooded the organization and school district with concern requests and got the event canceled.
A week later, a woman was arrested with some pipe bombs in town, which they took as proof they were right and had foiled a secret plot with hacktivism.
The GVCSF’s Blue Marble Jubilee was also canceled in 2020 and 2021 and the President says it’s not likely to come back.
So here we have an internet mob randomly destroying a school fundraiser because they thought a coded public tweet fit their pattern.
Now, there is some real precedent for this kind of coded message. Look up number stations if you’re curious.
But at every step of the process, they mixed ease of access with paranoid ideation and preselected conclusions. Because The Plan is vast and complicated and perfect, so anything that doesn’t make sense must be your failure to understand it.
Let’s take their initial premise here, that James Comey was hiding a secret message in his meme tweet seriously for a moment.
What makes Grass Valley Charter School Foundation the subject of the message? Only that it’s the only google result.
But James Comey wasn’t a random person, he was a powerful insider within the USA’s national security state.
What if he wasn’t publically targeting an attack, but referencing a keyword classified document or project?
What if GVCSF was actually about Comey’s secret plan to use FBI agents to do his gardening?
And his message was a, “Hey guys, you better keep doing my landscaping or you’re going to be looking for another job.”
It’s actually *more* plausible than the Qanon version because the first Director of the FBI, J Edger Hoover, did in fact have FBI agents do his landscaping.
So there’s a precedent.
But if you don’t have access to the FBI’s secret gardening files, a matter of national security, you’d never be able to find that.
The problem is fractal.
You probably won’t find real evidence of wrongdoing by looking at a google search unless someone else has taken the time to do the real work of finding evidence in the real world and put it on a searchable site.
I’m not really sure if this is even the best way to frame or discuss the problem. It’s kind of pervasive. It doesn’t even require malice. It’s just kind of how time works. The past isn’t accessible unless someone did something to preserve some of it.
And that person’s motivations always have an impact on what is/isn’t preserved.
And malicious actors kind of rely on this to get away with their shit.
I don’t believe that history is just beginning with the widespread adoption of autonomous sensor technology. The real issue is always indexing and organizing what you’ve got and even the best solutions for that problem so far like search engines are pretty bad at it.
And we haven’t even really addressed the monster issue here of, “Who do you trust?”
This is mostly just access.
I don’t know what to do about it other than try and see the problem as clearly as possible and try and develop a picture of what’s disappearing.
Anyway, see y’all on Sunday.
PS- If you were considering subscribing I’d really appreciate it. Things are getting a little lean here and December/January are always my worst months for freelancing.
Thanks again to all the people who have been supporting this newsletter, I know it’s been kind of a mess. But, you know, frankly, so am I.
See y’all later.