So, imagine that you had your smartphone miniaturized and hooked up directly to your brain. If you had this sort of brain chip, you'd be able to upload and download to the internet at the speed of thought. Accessing social media or Wikipedia would be a lot like — well, from the inside at least — like consulting your own memory. It would be as easy and as intimate as thinking. But would it make it easier for you to know what's true? Just because a way of accessing information is faster it doesn't mean it's more reliable, of course, and it doesn't mean that we would all interpret it the same way. And it doesn't mean that you would be any better at evaluating it. In fact, you might even be worse, because, you know, more data, less time for evaluation.
Something like this is already happening to us right now. We already carry a world of information around in our pockets, but it seems as if the more information we share and access online, the more difficult it can be for us to tell the difference between what's real and what's fake. It's as if we know more but understand less.
Now, it's a feature of modern life, I suppose, that large swaths of the public live in isolated information bubbles. We're polarized: not just over values, but over the facts. One reason for that is, the data analytics that drive the internet get us not just more information, but more of the information that we want. Our online life is personalized; everything from the ads we read to the news that comes down our Facebook feed is tailored to satisfy our preferences. And so while we get more information, a lot of that information ends up reflecting ourselves as much as it does reality. It ends up, I suppose, inflating our bubbles rather than bursting them. And so maybe it's no surprise that we're in a situation, a paradoxical situation, of thinking that we know so much more, and yet not agreeing on what it is we know.
So how are we going to solve this problem of knowledge polarization? One obvious tactic is to try to fix our technology, to redesign our digital platforms, so as to make them less susceptible to polarization. And I'm happy to report that many smart people at Google and Facebook are working on just that. And these projects are vital. I think that fixing technology is obviously really important, but I don't think technology alone, fixing it, is going to solve the problem of knowledge polarization. I don't think that because I don't think, at the end of the day, it is a technological problem. I think it's a human problem, having to do with how we think and what we value.
In order to solve it, I think we're going to need help. We're going to need help from psychology and political science. But we're also going to need help, I think, from philosophy. Because to solve the problem of knowledge polarization, we're going to need to reconnect with one fundamental, philosophical idea: that we live in a common reality. The idea of a common reality is like, I suppose, a lot of philosophical concepts: easy to state but mysteriously difficult to put into practice. To really accept it, I think we need to do three things, each of which is a challenge right now.
First, we need to believe in truth. You might have noticed that our culture is having something of a troubled relationship with that concept right now. It seems as if we disagree so much that, as one political commentator put it not long ago, it's as if there are no facts anymore. But that thought is actually an expression of a sort of seductive line of argument that's in the air. It goes like this: we just can't step outside of our own perspectives; we can't step outside of our biases. Every time we try, we just get more information from our perspective. So, this line of thought goes, we might as well admit that objective truth is an illusion, or it doesn't matter, because either we'll never know what it is, or it doesn't exist in the first place.
That's not a new philosophical thought — skepticism about truth. During the end of the last century, as some of you know, it was very popular in certain academic circles. But it really goes back all the way to the Greek philosopher Protagoras, if not farther back. Protagoras said that objective truth was an illusion because "man is the measure of all things." Man is the measure of all things. That can seem like a bracing bit of realpolitik to people, or liberating, because it allows each of us to discover or make our own truth.
But actually, I think it's a bit of self-serving rationalization disguised as philosophy. It confuses the difficulty of being certain with the impossibility of truth. Look — of course it's difficult to be certain about anything; we might all be living in "The Matrix." You might have a brain chip in your head feeding you all the wrong information. But in practice, we do agree on all sorts of facts. We agree that bullets can kill people. We agree that you can't flap your arms and fly. We agree — or we should — that there is an external reality and ignoring it can get you hurt.
Nonetheless, skepticism about truth can be tempting, because it allows us to rationalize away our own biases. When we do that, we're sort of like the guy in the movie who knew he was living in "The Matrix" but decided he liked it there, anyway. After all, getting what you want feels good. Being right all the time feels good. So, often it's easier for us to wrap ourselves in our cozy information bubbles, live in bad faith, and take those bubbles as the measure of reality.
An example, I think, of how this bad faith gets into our action is our reaction to the phenomenon of fake news. The fake news that spread on the internet during the American presidential election of 2016 was designed to feed into our biases, designed to inflate our bubbles. But what was really striking about it was not just that it fooled so many people. What was really striking to me about fake news, the phenomenon, is how quickly it itself became the subject of knowledge polarization; so much so, that the very term — the very term — "fake news" now just means: "news story I don't like." That's an example of the bad faith towards the truth that I'm talking about.
But the really, I think, dangerous thing about skepticism with regard to truth is that it leads to despotism. "Man is the measure of all things" inevitably becomes "The Man is the measure of all things." Just as "every man for himself" always seems to turn out to be "only the strong survive."
At the end of Orwell's "1984," the thought policeman O'Brien is torturing the protagonist Winston Smith into believing two plus two equals five. What O'Brien says is the point, is that he wants to convince Smith that whatever the party says is the truth, and the truth is whatever the party says. And what O'Brien knows is that once this thought is accepted, critical dissent is impossible. You can't speak truth to power if the power speaks truth by definition.
I said that in order to accept that we really live in a common reality, we have to do three things. The first thing is to believe in truth. The second thing can be summed up by the Latin phrase that Kant took as the motto for the Enlightenment: "Sapere aude," or "dare to know." Or as Kant wants, "to dare to know for yourself."
I think in the early days of the internet, a lot of us thought that information technology was always going to make it easier for us to know for ourselves, and of course in many ways, it has. But as the internet has become more and more a part of our lives, our reliance on it, our use of it, has become often more passive. Much of what we know today we Google-know. We download prepackaged sets of facts and sort of shuffle them along the assembly line of social media. Now, Google-knowing is useful precisely because it involves a sort of intellectual outsourcing. We offload our effort onto a network of others and algorithms. And that allows us, of course, to not clutter our minds with all sorts of facts. We can just download them when we need them. And that's awesome.
But there's a difference between downloading a set of facts and really understanding how or why those facts are as they are. Understanding why a particular disease spreads, or how a mathematical proof works, or why your friend is depressed, involves more than just downloading. It's going to require, most likely, doing some work for yourself: having a little creative insight; using your imagination; getting out into the field; doing the experiment; working through the proof; talking to someone.
Now, I'm not saying, of course, that we should stop Google-knowing. I'm just saying we shouldn't overvalue it, either. We need to find ways of encouraging forms of knowing that are more active, and don't always involve passing off our effort into our bubble. Because the thing about Google-knowing is that too often it ends up being bubble-knowing. And bubble-knowing means always being right. But daring to know, daring to understand, means risking the possibility that you could be wrong. It means risking the possibility that what you want and what's true are different things.
Which brings me to the third thing that I think we need to do if we want to accept that we live in a common reality. That third thing is: have a little humility. By humility here, I mean epistemic humility, which means, in a sense, knowing that you don't know it all. But it also means something more than that. It means seeing your worldview as open to improvement by the evidence and experience of others. Seeing your worldview as open to improvement by the evidence and experience of others. That's more than just being open to change. It's more than just being open to self-improvement. It means seeing your knowledge as capable of enhancing or being enriched by what others contribute. That's part of what is involved in recognizing there's a common reality that you, too, are responsible to.
I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that our society is not particularly great at enhancing or encouraging that sort of humility. That's partly because, well, we tend to confuse arrogance and confidence. And it's partly because, well, you know, arrogance is just easier. It's just easier to think of yourself as knowing it all. It's just easier to think of yourself as having it all figured out. But that's another example of the bad faith towards the truth that I've been talking about.
So the concept of a common reality, like a lot of philosophical concepts, can seem so obvious, that we can look right past it and forget why it's important. Democracies can't function if their citizens don't strive, at least some of the time, to inhabit a common space, a space where they can pass ideas back and forth when — and especially when — they disagree. But you can't strive to inhabit that space if you don't already accept that you live in the same reality. To accept that, we've got to believe in truth, we've got to encourage more active ways of knowing. And we've got to have the humility to realize that we're not the measure of all things.
We may yet one day realize the vision of having the internet in our brains. But if we want that to be liberating and not terrifying, if we want it to expand our understanding and not just our passive knowing, we need to remember that our perspectives, as wondrous, as beautiful as they are, are just that — perspectives on one reality.