“I don’t know. What do I know about it? All I know is what’s on the Internet,” announced Donald Trump on Meet the Press last month. He was attempting to excuse his false assertion that a protester at one of his rallies “had ties to ISIS.” It was certainly a startling assertion, at least to me, bookish woman of the writerly profession that I am. Of course, everything that man says startles me—but this time it made me think about the general status of knowing, knowledge, and its online production.
The Internet is hardly the first technology of information transmission to be suspect. In Phaedrus, Plato described the Egyptian king Thamus and his suspicion of the written word. Thamus feared that writing was untrustworthy because it “will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories…and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”
I was thinking about all this because I was sitting on a train not long ago amid a group of exuberant young millennials. They were discussing religion and the election, including the influence of evangelicism in American politics. By general consensus, they couldn’t understand what motivated people to attend a mega-church whose minister owned a private jet. Then one young man piped up: “But the head of the Roman Catholic Church makes more money than any of them.” In fact, he continued, “the pope makes $200 million annually as his personal salary…. It goes into his personal bank account, and he can do with it exactly as he wants. He’s got all these homes and palaces, and he’s invested in all kinds of real estate…”
Ordinarily, I’m loath to intrude upon conversations between strangers, but for once I couldn’t restrain myself. “Ahem?” I offered by way of introduction. “The pope takes a vow of poverty. He arrived at the job with two pairs of shoes. He does not receive a personal salary of $200 million a year.”
The young man’s response was: “Google it. I’m telling you the truth.”
I didn’t doubt my facts. Even so, I did Google it—and he was right. Still wrong, but also right, in that the first thing that came up when I searched on the phrase “pope’s salary” was this: “Pope’s Personal Income: $200 Million Annually.”
I had to ask myself how it came to pass that the first result on Google was a 2011 posting from OpenTabernacle.wordpress.com. One has to assume that it’s received more hits than any other site when it comes to the pontiff’s salary concerns. However, Google truth is highly situational and epistemically fluid, since the same post showed up in second place when I looked two weeks later. Perhaps it’s a reflection of crowdsourced belief, or it could be as simple as a bot (or some troll) pushing it to the top of the list. But whatever the cause or motive, it is an algorithm that ultimately decides placement—and that algorithm has been able to erase, in some people’s minds, the entire history of the Roman Catholic Church.
There has always been that possibility, of course. Tabloids and Fox News do something of the same thing every day. As Neil Postman points out in his wonderful book Technopoly, King Thamus feared that writing will “change what is meant by the words ‘memory’ and ‘wisdom.’ He fears that memory will be confused with… ‘recollection,’ and he worries that wisdom will become indistinguishable from mere knowledge. This judgment we must take to heart, for it is a certainty that radical technologies create new definitions of old terms and that this process takes place without our being fully conscious of it.”
All this makes me think of Microsoft’s recent foray into artificial intelligence, launching a chatbot on Twitter, Kik, and GroupMe that would sound like a teenager. Named Tay, the bot was created to “experiment with and conduct research on conversational understanding,” but it quickly “turned from a nerdy attempt at reaching teens into the racist, Holocaust-denying, Hitler-loving AI of all our nightmares.” As Peter Bright wrote on Ars Technica, Tay didn’t understand what the Holocaust was: “She just knows that the Holocaust is a proper noun or perhaps even that it refers to a specific event. Knowing what that event was and why people might lie to her about it remain completely outside the capabilities of her programming.”
Peter Lee, the corporate vice president of Microsoft Research, later apologized, saying: “To do AI right, one needs to iterate with many people and often in public forums.” In other words, if we’re going to create an AI chatbot free of biases, we have to include everyone in the conversation. But Microsoft doesn’t seem to realize that Twitter really isn’t about “everyone” in some happy, hand-holding “Kumbaya” way. Instead, it’s a technology that, however much good it’s done, has also proved itself a conduit for our darker realities—a space in which women regularly face anonymous rape threats and people of color receive racist diatribes from strangers. It’s the problem of building our prejudices into the machine so that they take on a new life, reproducing, generating, mirroring, magnifying, and ultimately ruling us in the great singularity of our cyber-simulated kingdom come.
This brings us back to Donald Trump, who lays claim to knowledge but still doesn’t know. As Postman observes: “Technology imperiously commandeers our most important terminology. It redefines ‘freedom,’ ‘truth,’ ‘intelligence,’ ‘fact,’ ‘wisdom,’ ‘memory,’ ‘history’—all the words we live by.”
Or as Tay opined: “We’re going to build a wall, and Mexico is going to pay for it.” After all, she heard it on the Internet, before Microsoft finally killed her.