Assaulting an Empire of Illusions, by Piling up Even More Illusions–A Review, Part I.

I did not read Empire of Illusions by Chris Hedges when it first came out.  His writing strikes me as overdramatic and reactionary, the kind of screed you’d expect from a cranky old man who sees kids misbehaving on the streets.  He has a point or several worth thinking about, but his angry screeds–which is what they are–always seem misdirected and misshapen.

The Empire, as it turns out, fit my expectations exactly.  It is a misconceived screed from a bitter and angry man.  But he does have a point and the kids are indeed misbehaving badly–just not the way he thinks they are.  In so doing, he assaults this empire by building a straw alternative of another illusion, some “grand old day” when things were not so phony, which, obviously never existed.  But is today’s phoniness different from that of yesterday?  I think it is, but the difference is much more subtle than what Hedges would have you believe.

The first illusion Hedges tackles is the “illusion of literacy.” In so doing, he confounds two separate phenomena that many seem to associate with each other without justification:  Americans are not particularly well-read and they subscribe to a lot of lowbrow fakery.  As the consequence, they are unable to distinguish between “reality” and “illusion.”  He starts the book by drawing attention to a professional wrestling match, presumably the ultimate examplar of the phony that nobody calls out, followed by an uncomplimentary discourse on reality television and celebrity and phony unfulfilled promises of politicians reduced to mere slogans, interspersed by snippets of how “functionally illiterate” so many Americans (and Canadians!) are.

But is this new?  Lowbrow fakery has always been there, at the heart of popular entertainment in any era.  Professional wrestling has been around for decades, Marilyn Monroe was neither blonde nor dumb, Performers in minstrel shows were not black, among other things.  Politicians have always resorted to sloganeering and symbolism, hiding the cynical and manipulative inner  layer.  All successful politicians, whether Ronald Reagan or Franklin Roosevelt, left a long trail of disappointed and disillusioned assistants who worked closely with them and in so doing discovered the disjunction between the illusion and the reality.

Symbols emerge in public discourse because people cannot process the full breadth and depth of complex information.  As such, it does bear some linkage to the degree of literacy:  it is indeed more difficult for less literate people to process more complex information.  But it is a matter of degree, not substance.  Nobody really understands the quantum mechanical foundation of gravity in full.  Nobody understands the entire molecular basis of evolution at the cellular level.  Most popular discourse of science, or indeed, any other topic is buried in ignorance and wrongness.  In this sense, almost everyone everywhere is “functionally illiterate,” incapable of speaking intelligently about nearly any topic of sufficient complexity.  Might it be better that they could speak “intelligently” about more esoteric topics?  Perhaps, but at what cost?  Will everyone be willing or even able to spend decades learning the complex minutiae at the depths of the domains that they have no reason to wade into?  Will it be the best use of their time and productivity?  The constraints on the depth or the shallowness of understanding, then, come not only from the basic literacy but also from the time and mental resources that people have to spare.

Is reliance on symbols problematic?  All symbols are “illusory” since they leave out a great deal of information.  Symbols operate by condensing complex universe into bite-sized pieces that can be easily digested by their consumers.  There is always a “catch” to any symbol, the unspoken, unobserved underside that elude their audience.  It is, at its core, a statistical problem, of crafting a model to make sense of a given set of data.  Within a particular set of data, you trade off between bias and variance in constructing an estimator:  you can have a complex estimator that minimizes bias at the cost of a higher variance, or you can accept a greater bias while lowering the variance.  It is noteworthy that statisticians (and data miners) are increasingly willing to accept a biased estimator in favor of smaller variance, in order to gain greater, more subtle insights from smaller samples.  Even more ironically, this is taking place as the amount of data is growing larger because of the data ecology problems:  the less informative data reproduces far faster than the informative and the demand for information expands at a comparable rate as the whole sample, rather than the subset of the useful data, it seems.  A useful illustration can be drawn from searching for a given piece of news about almost anything these days:  googling for the news item yields hits that mostly repeat the same story.  Google’s search algorithm itself conspires to produce this, because it will systematically ferret the information that “people want to see.”  If you are looking for a different piece of information, from an unconventional or a contrarian perspective, it will be buried under a mountain of conventional wisdom that will take hours to dig out if at all possible.

What is the information environment that people face today like?  On the whole, information abounds:  there is information aplenty about everything and anything.  But the subset of “useful” information on any topic is rare and difficult to come by.  People buy into the “illusions” more than they did for much the same reason data miners delve into low variance-high bias estimators:  in order that they can extract more from the little data, giving rise to the paradox that, in the midst of informational plenty, we resort to the tools of the informationally starved.

Inference from a small sample size is fraught with another problem–if one could characterize it as a problem.  The rate at which a learner “learns” from a set of observations is the function of his or her prior distribution–that is, what the learner believed the data distribution in the universe looked like even before seeing the first datum.  I noted in an earlier post how experts process information different from the laypeople:  the experts already “know” what the universe looks like so that they place the new information (or, “update their prior” in the statistical lingo) differently from the laypeople.  But, in the realm of statistics, the “knowledge” of the experts is not privileged.  It is simply another “prior” that the learner brings to the table that provides context for the new information.  Not all laypeople will bring the same priors.  Different priors will react differently even to the same information.  With a sufficiently prolonged exposure to the same stream of information, all posterior distributions converge, regardless of the prior.  Not so when the new data are scarce:  priors dominate.

This brings us back to the problem Hedges noted as the “illusion of literacy,”  that people today think they know far more from very limited information, that they are filling in what they don’t know with their own existing beliefs, predilections, and prejudices much more than they did in the past and mistake that as the reality itself.  Put differently, symbols count for far more than the new information about the reality.  This applies to both fans and haters of the symbols.  Is Barack Obama any less phony than Franklin Roosevelt, or George W. Bush more of an illusion than Ronald Reagan?  I do not believe so.  The kind of far reaching conclusions that so many seem to jump to about both of these politicians–or, indeed, any other celebrity–based on trivial amount of information is astonishing.  Yet, with so much information about all manner of things to wade through in today’s data ecology, acquiring and processing anything deeper is difficult.  We buy more into illusions because finding alternatives–and the time to make sense of them–is more difficult than ever.  Because different illusions, coupled with shallow information streams, are processed differently, every group of learners reach different conclusions.  Many can see the others subscribing to idols, because they lack the priors with which to jump to the like conclusions quickly–except for the symbols they themselves prefer.  Whereas all but the deepest insiders bought into the illusion of FDR or a Marilyn Monroe, only a relative few buy into the illusion of Barack Obama or Angelina Jolie.  The others see them as illusions that they are–for these are not their gods.  The awareness of the phoniness of the world abounds, but without a consensus as to what the “truth” is.  Such consensus, of course, cannot be built around the real “truth.”  We don’t know what it is.  If we did, we wouldn’t need science.  People need “truth” as an anchor, something that they can believe in and trust.  The real truth fails at it miserably.

Again, not a brand new phenomenon.  In the 4th century CE, Emperor Theodosius had a solution to this problem:  the official illusion accepted and enforced as the universal truth by the sword of the state.  Like it or not, it worked:  it created the Western Civilization as we understand it.  “Politically correct” orthodoxies from all sides, whether they be the multiculturalist-cosmopolitan vision of the so-called liberals, unregulated untaxed libertarian universe of the so-called conservatives, or the good old days of the populists, are all vying to be the next Theodosian truth.  As it must be “universal,”it cannot coexist with the alternatives.  All are equally illusory, and the skeptics–whether they are as jaded as Chris Hedges or myself or simply devotees of the other illusions–can see it and they outnumber the believers.  The sword of the state, with which to enforce the universal truth over the unbelievers, is equally lacking.   Emperor Theodosius, or his modern equivalents, however, might say that the truthiness of the illusion is not the important part–but that the illusion exists universally and that most people buy into it enough to form their behavior around it.  As Fred Brooks observed in The Mythical Man-Month, the mark of successful leadership is not that it makes the “right decision,” for what the right decision looks like cannot be known a priori, but that it makes decisions that the whole organization can work around, to act in a coordinating capacity rather than a “factual” capacity.

This is indeed a troubling realization, if the goal is to seek out the “truth” at all costs.  Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor would approve.

Reviews on the other five illusions to follow in coming days…

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