If the News is Fake, Imagine History

The collision of Leviathans has knocked something loose. Access to all that information from the Network has changed our perception of the present, and with it the perception of the past. The historical inevitability and (even more importantly) the desirability of the US establishment’s victory over all opponents is now very much in question. Both outside and inside the US, there’s the sense that the US-dominated postwar order is either on its last legs or already over, and that the ancient legislators and endless remakes reflect a fading culture trying to hang on by its fingernails to prevent what comes next.

Though people are gearing up as if on autopilot for a Second Cold War, it’s not obvious that the US will make it out of the first round given its internal Cold Civil War. The decline in state capacity, in internal alignment, in budgetary resources, in wherewithal, and in political will is tangible. It’s true that the most dedicated establishmentarians do still operate as if the empire will always be there. But the question of what America’s role in the world should be next remains unanswered, because the question of what America represents at home remains unanswered.

Within the US, groups on both right and left are now asking themselves in different ways: are we the baddies? The left asks whether the US is institutionally racist, the right asks whether the US is irredeemably leftist, and more factions on each side63 want a national divorce.

As we can see from the graphs, America is not really a single “nation state” anymore; it’s at least binational, with two warring groups. There’s been a collapse in institutional trust, and in each other. And the questions now arising are fundamental.

My perhaps idiosyncratic answers to these questions are: no, no, no, no, and yes. No, I don’t think the US establishment is nowadays on balance a force for good abroad or at home, or that the US model would be cloned today by someone setting up a new state, or that the US establishment can be trusted to tell the truth. I do, however, think the Cold War America of 1945-1991 was on balance better for its citizens and allies than its Soviet opponents.

But while I can justify64 these answers, my responses aren’t as important as why these questions are arising in the first place. The reason is that the US establishment has lost control over the narrative. The distortion of the present, and the past, has caught up to them.

Distortion of the Present 

“If the news is fake, imagine history.” This pithy tweet reverses Orwell, because he who is acknowledged to be faking the present can no longer distort the past. That is, once enough people see that the establishment has been lying about today’s events, they naturally begin to think the establishment might have been lying about yesterday’s news as well.

To calibrate this, let’s start with a grab bag of media failures from the recent present, the last 5-15 years or so. You’ll no doubt have your own list.

You probably didn’t remember that last one, mainly because there was minimal coverage, but watch this and then ask why you’ve never heard of it before.

In each of these cases, we have something predicted to go to zero that ends up at millions, or a certainty that winds up a nullity, or a hot war featuring the US military and 482 suicide car bombings that somehow registered on the public consciousness as zero.

If the US establishment could erase Mosul from memory in the age of the internet, you start to see how Putin’s Russia could pretend the 2022 invasion of Ukraine was just a “special operation.” And you start to realize that it’s not sufficient to simply “take the articles with a grain of salt”, and discount them a bit. By listening to the establishment, your perception of reality may be off by one million fold.

Patterns of Information Distortion 

There are a few common patterns here, ways in which the information supply chain has been distorted.

Channel distortion. That which favors the US establishment is magnified 100X, while that which disfavors it is downranked 100X or silenced entirely, such that the net distortion is 10,000X or more. We can think of this as analogous to channel distortion in signal processing. Media corporations aren’t just censors, they’re sensors - and self-interested ones. That is, they’re ostensibly measuring the world, but they actually have self-interested reasons for reporting that some numbers are low (like inflation and crime) and others are high (like whatever social ill they want to address). There are many such channel distortions, including (a) absence of criticism of media owners, (b) A/B testing to promote literal hate speech for more clicks, (c) self-referential quoting to give the impression of impartiality, and so on.

Narrative alignment. The way the establishment determines what to put on the front page out of millions of possible stories should remind you of the political power theory of history. It’s only things that support the narrative: their favored state policies will always succeed, their disfavored tech competitors will always fail, their errors are honest mistakes, your errors are firing offenses, the opponents of the establishment are x-ists and traitors, free speech is the enemy, and so on. Quantitatively speaking, it’d be relatively straightforward to use word2vec or something more recent to literally score and rank stories for their narrative alignment.

Power over truth. In these incidents, if you stop to count, you often realize that the reports were off not by say 50%, but by 1000X or more. Why do these “reporters” still have their jobs, then? Because their job wasn’t to make money, but to make power. That is, they weren’t trying to predict the future correctly for the sake of making good investments, but to repeat the party line to keep people in line. They’re like actors, in that their role was to say (or write) the right thing at the right time, to manufacture your consent, to misinform you about everything from weapons of mass destruction to the probability of inflation, and to then claim democratic legitimacy after people voted on the basis of their official misinformation.

Comparison to an aligned sensor. It’s worth comparing the reports by these media corporations to reports by an aligned sensor, one where there is no way for the sensor to “win” at your expense by distorting the information it’s giving to you. Your gas tank does not report that the gas is at 90% before suddenly dropping to 20%. Your bank account does not zoom up in order to fake you out and get you to buy something from the bank, and then silently down again, like an establishment journalist trying to manipulate someone before an election. The metrics on your dashboard at work are not typically falsified by people to make them more sensational. In each of these cases, you are receiving reports from either a dispassionate machine or an institution (like your company) where you have economic alignment and no significant principal/agent issues. By contrast, the media corporation can report false information to you and still make money; it has a mind and wallet of its own, unlike the sensors you own.

Network rescue. Note something else: the only reason you are hearing about these incidents, and the only reason the rebuttals to them ever came out in the first place, is the Network. It is only because the State’s filtering of social media is not yet complete, that their downranking of dissident voices not fully efficient, that their late-breaking attempt to impose speech and thought controls on a free society not fully consummated, that (a) the initial refutations were even published and (b) that you are seeing some of them combined into one document.

This last point is worth hovering on. Why do we know about these distortions of the present? It’s again because of a collision of Leviathans, because the Network routed information around the State, giving people actual rather than ostensible freedom of speech.

The Network Delivered Actual Freedom of Speech 

We elaborate on this in the Fragmentation Thesis, but the Network is accelerating a great decentralization of Western society that began shortly after the peak centralization of about 1950.

Towards the end of this process, in our current era, the US establishment got so fat and happy that it forgot how aggressive its predecessors had been in imposing speech and thought controls. Basically, the establishment didn’t realize they’d inherited a highly regulated, centralized communications apparatus where the vast majority of Americans had no practical freedom of speech unless they owned a media corporation or were employed by one.

As such, in the 1990s and 2000s, the American establishment could seem to eat its cake and have it too — enjoying the rhetorical windfall of claiming to have a free society, while in practice holding an enormous distribution advantage over the common man (“never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel”).

Now, it was true that the US was more free than the USSR, but it is not true that the US was more free than the Internet. As we discuss later, social media is American glasnost and cryptocurrency is American perestroika. So as the internet scaled, and Americans actually got the rights to free speech and free markets that they were nominally promised, the establishment started to feel threatened.

Why? Because while speech only influences volitional behavior (like voting), volitional behavior in turn influences coercive behavior (like legislating). So, if the US establishment lost control over speech they would have lost control over everything.

The Establishment Launched the Counter-Decentralization 

Thus began the great Counter-Decentralization in 2013, the techlash plus the Great Awokening, what Jack Bratich calls a “war of restoration” by an establishment that had been economically disrupted by the Network but that retained the capability to morally denounce its enemies.

The threatened US establishment increased the volume of attacks on their rivals in both senses of the term; the sheer quantity of attacks and the level of vitriol soared, as you can see from the charts. Their rivals were basically everyone — tech, Trump, China, Russia, Israel, Brazil, Hungary, Brexiteers, Macron — everyone that wasn’t a loyal part of the US establishment’s social network.

And from 2013-2020, against all odds, this multifront campaign seemed to be working. America’s establishment spent down huge amounts of reputation, but they managed to wokify Google, Amazon, Apple, and the major tech companies, deplatform Trump and get him out of office, and terrorize the country with massive riots. They completely reversed course65 from the Obama era, silently stole the China issue from Trump, and polarized relations with Russia. They canceled, deplatformed, demonized, and dominated for the better part of a decade.

Then, suddenly, after February 2021, there was a distinct slackening of support, of intensity. The coalition that had predated Trump, that had arguably caused Trump, didn’t seem to outlive Trump. At the time of writing, it’s hard to tell whether this is a momentary shift or a permanent one, but social engagement is down. People have tuned out. The US establishment is only talking to their hardcore supporters now. All the other social networks they’ve attacked — essentially everyone in the world who isn’t a true blue American State-worshipper — they aren’t listening anymore.

Instead, they’re reassessing their relationship with the US establishment, and with the US itself.

Distortion of the Past 

The distortion of America’s present has led people to re-evaluate America’s past. Once they realize they’ve had Gell-Mann Amnesia, they start to wonder if their mental model is one of Gell-Mann America.

Recall that Gell-Mann Amnesia refers to the phenomenon where you read something in the paper about an area you have independent knowledge of. Suppose it’s computer science. When you read articles on the topic, you see grievous falsehoods, and inversions of cause and effect. Then you turn the page and read about, say, Palestine as if the reporting on that topic was trustworthy. You forget what you just saw, that the reporting was flawed in the area where you could independently check it. You get amnesia.

The mechanistic reason for Gell-Mann Amnesia is the hub-and-spoke topology of the pre-internet information environment. Suppose you were an expert in computer science, another person was an expert on Japan, a third knew about the bond market, and so on. You are spokes that are all connected to the hub (say, The New York Times) but not each other. Each spoke has superior local information, and can falsify NYT reports in their own domain, but has no mechanism for coordinating with other spokes, let alone establishing a superior hub. Until the internet, the blockchain, and the advent of cryptohistory.

The long-term consequence of Gell-Mann Amnesia is Gell-Mann America. People know now that we are systematically misled about the present. But at least we live in the present, so we have local information that can falsify many news stories. We do not live in the past, so all we know is that we may be wildly off-base in our understanding of history. There are no people from the past around to give first hand accounts…though we can read their books and sometimes watch their films.

Here are some quick links that may surprise you about the past.

And that’s just66 the 20th century, with a focus on the Cold War!

Once you start seeing that many dissonant facts, plenty of them from the same organizations like The New York Times Company that call themselves the “paper of record” and the “first draft of history,” that literally run billboards calling themselves the “Truth”…you start to realize that there is an unreliable narrator problem.

What if Sulzberger is more like Keyser Söze? What if his employees are highly self-interested professional prevaricators? What if they’ve always been like that? What if you can’t trust anything they say, and by extension anything the US establishment says, without checking it yourself?

As the Cold War ended, and the internet rose in the late 1990s, a spate of movies came out — The Matrix, Memento, The Truman Show, Fight Club, The Game, Men in Black, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind –— all about a constructed reality where our memories aren’t real. It’s almost as if with the rise of the Network, that there was a dim realization in the collective subconscious that everyone had been lied to, deceived, anesthetized, sedated by the centralized States of the 20th century — not just by the fascists and the communists, but the democratic capitalists too.

Just like someone who grew up in China and migrated to the US in adulthood would find that they’d have been lied to — that Mao wasn’t really “7 parts good and 3 parts bad,” but far worse than that — those who grew up in the US and migrated to the Internet in adulthood are starting to realize that something is up.

The reason is that the American establishment didn’t really understand what the internet would mean for them. Because during the 20th century they’d made obvious-but-threatening truths, like the existence of Soviet spies in the US, rude to talk about. Then a progression happened: after the obvious became rude, the rude became unsayable, the unsayable became unthinkable, and the unthinkable went unthought. And once it went unthought, it was no longer even thought about as a potential threat. Moreover, the original people who’d consciously suppressed that obvious-but-threatening truth had passed away.

So these unthought ideas were then sitting there waiting in a dusty tome, waiting for someone to happen upon them, and accidentally rediscover them and put them on the internet. Whether Google Books or Wikileaks or the Soviet archives or the censorship-resistant web, there are now too many secrets in plain view.

The question now is whether a newly awakened US establishment can use its control of chokepoints like Google and its various “fact-checkers” to suppress access to these inconvenient truths, or whether web3-mediated services will make it permanently difficult for the State to suppress the Network. You as the reader may have some input on that.

Jurassic Ballpark 

As a not-so-side note, in addition to falsified newspapers and history textbooks, your distorted impression of the past — your Gell-Mann America — likely comes from movies, to a greater extent than you might think. If you haven’t studied something in depth, your mental model of it often implicitly reduces to a few scenes from a Hollywood movie.

Let’s call this phenomenon “Jurassic Ballpark.” If you recall the scene from Jurassic Park where they splice in amphibian DNA to spackle over the gaps in their genetic reconstruction, that’s similar to what media consumption has done to your brain.67 You’re unconsciously splicing movie scenes into real-life as a ballpark approximation. The gaps in your knowledge have been filled in by TV and movies. These are unreliable narrators. For example:

By contrast, you very rarely see depictions of journalists, activists, professors, regulators, and the like as bad guys. The public lacks televised narratives for how people in those roles can go wrong. That’s why the behavior of journalists in real life was such a surprise to Paul Graham:

One of the biggest surprises of my adult life is how unethical reporters are. In movies they’re always the good guys.

“In movies they’re always the good guys.” Indeed! If you think about it, superheros are literally portrayed as journalists (that’s the day job of both Clark Kent and Peter Parker), and journalists are likewise portrayed as superheros (see movies like Spotlight and The Post). The Intrepid Reporter is as much of a stock character as the Evil Corporation.70 You don’t hear much about the evil reporter, though. You don’t hear much about the evil communist, either.

Why? More than 20 years ago, Reason Magazine ran a story that still holds up well today, called Hollywood’s Missing Movies, about how the film industry airbrushed the drama of the Cold War out of the 20th century. So it’s not just that the movie industry ran positive portrayals of US establishment journalists, they also ran positive portrayals of out-and-out communists - but I repeat myself.71

There are exceptions. Once in a while you do see a House of Cards that depicts evil nonprofits, Democrats, and journalists. Once in a while you do get a Dallas Buyers Club or Ghostbusters that depicts evil regulators from the FDA or EPA. And more recently you’ve started to see a few movies that even depict evil communists, not in the interchangeable cartoon villain sense of a Rocky IV, but in the ideological sense - the Lives of Others, The Way Back, Bridge of Spies, and the Death of Stalin respectively depict the spying, gulaging, imprisoning, murdering Communist states for what they really were.

Still, these are very much exceptions. AI video analysis could quantify this, but if you took the top N most popular movies and TV shows over the past several decades, in terms of raw hours of footage watched, I’d bet the world has seen a >1000:1 ratio of scenes featuring evil capitalists to scenes featuring evil communists.

Of course, these are fictional stories, but as Graham’s quote illustrates, they serve as real world archetypes. Even the FDA knows what a Tricorder is, and they think of it as “good” only because it was portrayed as good in Star Trek. But most of the time biomedical innovators are portrayed as evil, with all the attendant consequences. False histories shape our reality. We all live in Jurassic Ballpark.

Further Reading 

Perhaps you now agree that history has been distorted. But we’ve only scratched the surface. While we can’t recapitulate the history of the whole world here, we can recommend some references that show how the past is different than you might think. We have idiosyncratically categorized them as “techno-economic history” and “20th century” history. If you click these links and even skim the books, let alone buy and fully read them, you’ll start to understand the degree of historical distortion in standard textbooks, newspapers, and movies. And you’ll be equipped to answer the fundamental questions we raised at the beginning of this chapter.

First, some reading on techno-economic history:

Then, some reading on 20th Century history:

This is focused on the West and in particular 20th century America, but someone who’d grown up in China could probably prepare a similar list using global sources to debunk various kinds of CCP propaganda. For example, the fact that North Korea is dark makes China’s movie extolling their military support for the glorious North Korean regime a little darker.