Understanding Facts in The Age of Superabundant Information
How do facts work? A few weeks ago, we discussed the nature of one form of fact collection (surveys) and how using the right (or wrong, depending on your perspective) techniques can change the outcome of your questionnaire. But what are facts as we know them anyway?
When I was growing up in church culture in the 1990s, post-modernism was one of the big bogeymen. I gathered from listening to others that the postmodern disregard for truth would come from people ignoring common sense facts to make up their reality. With time and distance, however, the far more pervasive and insidious postmodernism I see today is not from a lack of caring about facts but from a lack of discernment about which “facts” should be paid attention to.
Jon Askonas, writing in the Spring 2023 issue of The New Atlantis, notes:
Our understanding of what it means to know something about the world has comprehensively changed multiple times in history.1
Askonas outlines the history of the term "fact," which was not naturally occurring but was a creation of the 17th century. Before this, he writes, knowledge was based on personal experiences, observations, or religious and philosophical beliefs. The invention of the printing press, among other factors, revolutionized how facts were produced and disseminated. The coffeehouse culture of the 17th century, combined with the printed word, played a pivotal role in establishing facts as we know them today. The standardization of measurements and tools further solidified the concept of facts.
You’ll quickly notice the printing press at the core of that transition. Askonas writes,
It was this immutability of printed books that made them so important to the establishment of facts. Handwritten manuscripts had been inconsistent and subject to constant revision. Any kind of technical information was notoriously unreliable: Copyists had a hard enough time maintaining accuracy for texts whose meaning they understood, much less for the impenetrable ideas of experimenters. But for science to function, the details mattered. Printing allowed scientists to share technical schema, tables of data, experiment designs, and inventions far more easily, durably, and accurately, and with illustrative drawings to boot.2
“The medium is the message.” That’s the line that started the study of media ecology and one of the first topics I tackled in these essays in February 2021. That line is somewhat abstract but contains a great truth: there’s more to what you’re saying than the message's contents; how you say it matters. However, applying that truth to history shows us that the creation of new mediums (the printed book) enabled a new type of message: the creation of facts.
At this point, Askonas pulls in L. M. Sacasas’s notion of “superabundance” (I wrote about it here). Askonas explains,
Who could look at the 15th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, with 410,000 entries across thirty-two volumes, and not see abundance? At about $1,500 a set, that’s only a third of a penny per entry!... But cheaper still is Wikipedia, which currently has 6,635,949 English-language entries at a cost per entry of absolutely nothing. Abundance is a third of a penny per entry. Superabundance is fifteen times as many entries for free.3
The proliferation of facts in the electric age has a watering-down effect. There are so many facts that each fact becomes less important than the overall narrative the facts tell.
Few things feel more immutable or fixed than a ball of cold, solid steel. But if you have a million of them, a strange thing happens: they will behave like a fluid, sloshing this way and that, sliding underfoot, unpredictable. In the same way and for the same reason, having a small number of facts feels like certainty and understanding; having a million feels like uncertainty and befuddlement. The facts don’t lie, but data sure does.4
As facts become liquid, they lose their potency. There are enough facts in the world that any particular combination can tell almost any story imaginable, so what becomes valuable are not the facts but the narratives used to string facts together into stories that make sense of the world. The message of electronic communications is that facts are a commodity, and the real value is ideas and the people who articulate those ideas to help you choose which facts are relevant to build narratives around.
Hence back to postmodernism. It’s not just that people stop caring about facts; we buy into flawed narratives that may confirm our closely held beliefs about the world but that don’t represent reality.
So the question for us is, what narratives do we let drive our realities? What’s the litmus test we apply to the world to determine whether a narrative is helpful, trustworthy, and worth basing all our other decisions around? What vision of the world are we buying into, and how do our values flow from that vision and give us the standard to judge all the other narratives we are presented with?
What that, thanks for reading. See you again soon.