Networking and loss of consistency – Part 1: In the chaos of exploding transparency


The digital transformation regularly offers us various kinds of shocking experiences: firstly, bizarre mistakes in implementation, in which the opposite of what should be done is often done; secondly, strange ideas about what is happening, which are the result of a concoction of dubious facts; thirdly, new word creations that cloud the discourse or suddenly steer it in a different direction; fourthly, fifthly and so on.

At least as far as the third point is concerned – the new linguistic constructs – we can relax. On the one hand, words have always been manipulated and on the other, many phenomena that now have new names have been known for a long time. If “deepfakes” are identified with AI today, they seem harmless. If, on the other hand, they are equated with fake news, they appear dangerous. Both associations are at best only part of the truth, but they each characterise attitudes towards the topic and thus construct a social reality. The term “alternative facts”, on the other hand, describes a conflict with interpretations of facts. As a rule, it is used when one group of actors manipulates the discourse with clever tricks and others defend themselves against it – according to the principle of an eye for an eye, dishonesty for dishonesty. This principle has always been observable in many university discourses. For example, the endless sessions that used to go round in circles at some elite institutions were often the result of some people using a trick to get their way first and then others realising this and coming back to the topic two hours later to succeed with a trick of their own. This was taken for granted with much more sophistication and elegance than in today’s alternative facts discourse, but with pretty much the same attitude that many lateral thinkers accuse the establishment of today. From this perspective, the rise of Donald Trump is also the story of the jug that goes to the well until it breaks: the enlightened part of humanity has overdone it with its elaborate argumentative tricks

“What is said is invented. False, really really false.” (Samuel Beckett)

The first point – errors of realisation – is also easy to understand, although serenity is more difficult here. We are in an age of innovation and participation. This does not mean that many new things are being invented, nor does it mean that innovations address people’s needs to a particularly high degree because they are involved in the innovation process. Rather, it means that everyone invents something of their own and usually something quite similar to thousands of others. Digital transformation is bottom-up almost everywhere, with the result that creativity is marginal and many things are tackled in the wrong way – not to mention worse: In science and art, serious jokes can be observed on the subject of digitalisation, which one would like to describe as the rebirth of romantic German literature without self-irony

The second point is more difficult: the strange ideas about the world. Where does all the partial madness of the sensible come from? How do intelligent people come up with the idea that the development of humanity is predetermined – and why do those who spread this idea in the context of AI usually don’t even realise that they are spreading it? Why do people relativise judgements even where there is nothing to relativise – and how can it be that curious, open-minded people do this particularly often? Why are otherwise very serious people outraged by well-founded historical analyses, claiming that these analyses use indecent terms, such as the word “barbarians”? In short, where do the blatant inconsistencies and explicit prohibitions of thought in the minds of people today come from?

The influence of filter bubbles

The answer is not simple and should not be given prematurely. Social research has shown, for example, that filter bubbles – which are among the usual suspects of modern grievances – function somewhat differently in social media than assumed. On the one hand, the accessibility and discovery of specific minority opinions actually creates the basis for people to construct their own world view, which has nothing in common with the opinion of the general public and/or the state of science. On the other hand, anger is mainly caused by confrontation with dissenters or reports about them, which is much more common in social media than in everyday physical life

Of course, this does not explain why we are constantly confronted with the fact that our friends have supposedly or actually bizarre ideas about the world. Such experiences are now so common that many have adapted their behaviour accordingly. Today, if someone from my professional community or from my personal environment explains to me how beneficial organised crime is, I will (on a good day) calmly have the context explained to me to find out what he or she means. Or at least I will try to understand this context after the first emotion of incomprehension. And this is simply because I have fundamental differences of opinion with several people with whom I work well and because I have learnt that it is possible to leave them as they are. Strangeness has become normal. Nevertheless, the increasing diversity of special perspectives irritates me. If it were only about one version of the vaccination issue, the phenomenon could be explained in terms of content. But it’s about a wide variety of things and, above all, about things that are quite distant from us

Complex and interdisciplinary

One of the main reasons is the growth of our knowledge. The interdisciplinary networking of fields of knowledge is booming. There are genuine get-togethers of disciplines such as planetary geology. There are wide-ranging interdisciplinary discourse projects from which disciplines such as spatial sociology emerge. And there is the transparency explosion, which destroys old certainties and reveals new perspectives. The latter includes, for example, Cesar Hidalgo’s attempt to depict evolution as a process of complexity growth – which follows the same principles from physics to biology to economics

Even more spectacular than the results of knowledge networking are the new findings in individual disciplines. Ever since we began to understand how the human immune system works, this very functioning has seemed ever more incredible. As we begin to learn more about early history, we not only know that it was the first cities that made the slave trade a big business for the first time, but also realise that mathematics owes its origins to this very trade. Since science has exposed one difference after another between humans and animals as a fairy tale, we are increasingly forced to accept that this ability to do maths is one of only two remaining differences between humans and animals – the other being cooperative empathy. In this way, human history presents itself as an almost insane, contingent path that makes any deterministic AI prediction appear borderline unrealistic. But perhaps it is precisely the imposition of this lack of logic in history that, ex contrario, gives rise to the linear predictions of the future in the discourse surrounding the digital transformation

A look into space

It gets quite strange when we look into space. Ever since we started looking for black holes, the universe has appeared to be paved with them. And while it now seems clear that all life in the universe will eventually die out, no matter how much of it there has ever been, the questions of the existence of time and the size of infinity are still the subject of scientific dispute – a dispute that will probably embarrass many a superstar of the natural sciences when future historians analyse it

Given this overflowing complexity, full of deep and spectacular insights at every turn, which we can easily connect thanks to modern digital technologies, it is not surprising that many people hold contradictory views without the slightest willingness to bring consistency to their beliefs. Not only is there a lack of time, it is above all too emotionally exhausting to apply one’s own convictions in dealing with the flood of knowledge. It’s not that we lack orientation, but that it has become too tedious. The chaos of knowledge is one of the defining problems of contemporary society.

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AUTHOR: Reinhard Riedl

Prof. Dr Reinhard Riedl is a lecturer at the Institute of Digital Technology Management at BFH Wirtschaft. He is involved in many organisations and is, among other things, Vice-President of the Swiss E-Government Symposium and a member of the steering committee of TA-Swiss. He is also a board member of, Praevenire - Verein zur Optimierung der solidarischen Gesundheitsversorgung (Austria) and, among others.

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