[This post is also available as an issue of my newsletter, Leaflet.]
In the early onset of adulthood, one often samples reckless hedonism—drinking away weekends, maxing out credit cards, counting peanut butter swirled into spaghetti as “dinner,” punctuating relationship conflict with cigarettes—but the obverse of utterly unimpeded freedom is that one is free to die alone in a cancer ward if one really wants to, and at some point, there is usually an accommodation with prudence and fear, and one sets about acquiring boring, sensible habits. Never drink juice or soda, for instance. Just buy baby shampoo, because then you don’t have to find a new brand every six months. One even becomes grateful for habits like brushing one’s teeth that come as it were pre-installed.
Information hygiene is one such regimen. It was probably easier in the era I grew up in. Sources of information then had distinct edges and well-known, widely agreed upon reputations, in part because information was almost always delivered in a physical form. By and large, in those days, the only way to read a news article in, say, the Evening Gazette of Worcester County, Massachusetts, was to read it in the ink-on-paper Evening Gazette. In a pinch you could catch the bus into Worcester and read an old article on microfilm in the library downtown, but in general if you were reading an Evening Gazette story it was because you were holding the Evening Gazette in your hands. And well before that, you knew—either because you grew up knowing or because you had quizzed the neighbors when you moved to town—that the Gazette was ever so slightly more liberal than the Worcester Telegram, the only local alternative, which was the morning paper in the area, and you knew that both papers were pretty reliable about facts and a little stodgy. (Not perfectly reliable, however. When the Gazette ran a candid photo of me one spring day, sitting on a swing in our backyard reading a collection of short stories about vampires, I was shocked to see my name misspelled, our address garbled, and the vampires miscategorized as “homework.”)
Nice people didn’t read the flimsy magazines for sale in supermarket checkout lines. (By the way, these were not the glossy perfect-bound tomes you find in supermarkets today, blandly commemorating World War II, or vegetarian recipes, or a pop star who has through death recently achieved embourgeoisement. These were more ludicrous, meaner in spirit, and much cheaper-looking.) This wasn’t because nice people thoughtfully upheld the values of curation and fact-checking. It was because of class war. It was understood to be a little soiling to be seen even leafing through such magazines. It was understood that Tom Brokaw delivered real news, and that the Evening Magazine TV show that preceded him didn’t (despite that one segment on Chippendales dancers that did have some special news for me in particular, one fateful Thursday). At 5:30pm we knew that what was coming out of the television wasn’t serious, and at 6pm we knew that it was.
Channels of information are not so sharply delimited today. A talk-show host you follow tweets a line from a Washington Post story: you can’t simply say you learned about it on a talk show, or that you learned about it by browsing Twitter, or that you learned about it from reading the Washington Post. It’s all mixed up. And partly as a corollary, the reputations of channels of information are no longer so clearly demarcated, either. Even people like me, who consider The Washington Post to be reliable in matters of fact, have to keep in mind that a line from one of its articles that’s been cherry-picked by a media personality might acquire a slant on Twitter that it didn’t have in its original context—that the line might even have been selected with the intention that it will be misunderstood. Moreover, nowadays there exists a community of readers in which the consensus is that the Washington Post is a duplicitous lackey puppet of some dire neoliberal conspiracy. A third novelty of our environment: the consumption of information is for the most part invisible. Is it déclassé to read TMI Feedzweb? Who cares! No one sees you reading it. And even if they could, the shame and scorn that once enforced information hygiene have been so overthrown that nowadays reading downmarket sleaze probably qualifies you as edgy, in a downtown, post-moral kind of way.
What’s a boring adult to do? As I see it, there are two desiderata here: not to have your time wasted, and not to have your mind poisoned. I immediately, humbly confess that I have let a lot of my time be wasted over the past decade or so of Twitter use. My husband and I have print subscriptions to more than a dozen periodicals, but whole issues of these have been recycled unread into sock fibers and Patagonia jacket liners while I was clicking through to try to figure out why someone I was a little scared of on Twitter was so indignant about the intellectual misprisions of someone else on Twitter whom I kind of liked. I didn’t want to get attacked someday myself, you know. Was it worth it? Sometimes it felt like it was, at the time. I got to be a spectator at the front lines; I got to see the bayonets going in, to hear the flump of the bodies falling into the mud. But sometimes it didn’t feel worth it. Even hot takes that feel urgent while you’re reading them usually evanesce a minute or two later. I’ll never get back all those hours I spent reading about why it was unforgivable/imperative to call out as fascist politicians who up to that point had only gotten as far as openly longing to become fascist. In retrospect, what if I had just read the stories in each week’s New Yorker that looked interesting to me, instead of scrolling slack-jawed until I could tell which ones were being either denounced or overpraised by my disembodied frenemies?
I have a pretty good b.s. detector. While a denizen of Twitter, I prided myself on never having retweeted that picture of the shark swimming down the street during a hurricane, or, for the most part, any of its text equivalents. I don’t think my own mind ever got poisoned, in other words, but I did see minds poisoned. (“Who goes redpill?” is an article I would like to read someday.) The thing is that on Twitter there’s always a hurricane, and a shark is always swimming toward you through its chum-filled waters. Repeatedly batting it on the nose takes effort, and is that how you want to spend your one and only life? I love my friends, but it isn’t by and large for their news judgment that I love them, so why should I let them choose what I read instead of trusting the professionals at the New York Times, the Atlantic, n+1, the New York Review of Books, and so forth? I’m actually pretty happy when I find a site like Four Columns that is willing to send me a small number of smart review-essays on varied topics once a week. I wish Bookforum’s Paper Trail came out as a newsletter, but as a certified internet old, I know how to plug its feed into my RSS reader.
I wish I could say that I logged out of Twitter last week because I finally started listening to all my own arguments against myself on this topic. The truth is, I logged out because of disgust. Musk had recently been carrying water for Putin, so when Musk took possession of the site, I logged out on a wait-and-see basis. I had promised myself that I would quit if he let Trump back on, as he has signaled he will; I can’t face swimming in unmediated sewage again. The end came sooner, as it happened. A few days ago, Musk tweeted (and then deleted) a link to a conspiracy theory about the violent assault on Paul Pelosi that was so nauseating that I couldn’t bear to contribute even my tiny and insignificant content stream to a media company that he owns. I’m logged out indefinitely now. (Not deleting, yet; things are changing too fast.)
A couple of weeks ago, I listened to a podcast discussion about artificial intelligence (AI) between the New York Times reporter Kevin Roose and the podcaster Derek Thompson, who believe we’ll someday look back on the text-generating and art-making AI released this summer as epoch-shifting. Quite possibly! Some of the dystopian side effects that Roose and Thompson foresee may already be with us, though. Roose imagines, for example, that writerless news websites will spring up, full of articles penned by text-generating AI. In fact, the internet is already overrun with sites that pose as trustworthy sources of local news but have ulterior, usually political, motives—one such site was the source of the vile story linked to by Musk—and though these sites are not yet written by AI (as far as I know), they might as well be. AI could hardly be worse than low-rent paraphrases of wire stories, republication of corporate press releases, and rightwing dog-whistles. Roose also wonders how the nature of art will change once machines are able to replicate technical facility in any medium and any imaginable style, but much the same reckoning was forced on art by photography more than a century and a half ago. At the high end of the art market today, mere craft is already of rather little value. Donald Judd structured his whole career as an artist around being hostile to craft, deliberately designing artworks that could be manufactured to specification without any special skill. At the higher levels of the market, art now consists mostly of innovations in the idea of what art is, or the way it is understood. Recruiting AI into that project won’t slow anyone down even for long enough to hiccup.
This morning, Tiffany Hsu reported for the New York Times about fears that manipulated videos and photos are spreading unrecognized on Tiktok. Again, to some extent, we’re already there, and we’ve been there for a while. When I watched a recent Tiktok of a deepfake Tom Cruise flirting with a person who seemed to be Paris Hilton, it was not at all clear to me that Hilton was real. I googled, and had to resort to an Entertainment Weekly article that explained what I had been looking at. In other words, I determined that Cruise was fake and Hilton real only by means of trusting Entertainment Weekly. This is startling for someone who grew up when fake photos were almost always too clumsy to fool anyone, but it isn’t a situation that exceeds humanity’s epistemological capacities. It’s photography that’s recent, after all; unreliability has been with us forever, and has been accelerating ever since printing presses became widespread. Welcome to the 17th and 18th centuries! How to distinguish truth from fake news was a major concern during the Enlightenment, and the answer philosophers came up with then was not to try to stop the spread of newsprint but to set up laws, institutions, and protocols that would make trust reasonable in a world where anyone was capable of ventriloquizing anyone else thanks to new technology. (Spoiler alert: Copyright was quite useful.) Maybe at the moment you have sharper eyes than I do and can see that Fake Tom Cruise’s head doesn’t attach to his neck at quite the right angle, but in another few iterations or so, AI will defeat even the sharpest human eyes. The only anchor to be found will be in regimens of information hygiene. In such a world, people in positions of authority who spread disinformation knowingly, or even just with reckless disregard for the truth, will have to be sanctioned as untrustworthy—or else we’ll all drown in an AI-generated video swamp. Or rather, they will have to be identified as untrustworthy and stigmatized as such by any community—by any subset of society—that is willing to adopt measures that further the spread of truth. There’s some bad news here: if you’re Diderot, you don’t really even hope that someday everyone in France will want to, much less be able to, distinguish truth from falsehood. All you’re aspiring to is a self-limiting network of fellow philosophes willing to adhere to a sufficiently rigorous information hygiene protocol. Your hope is that truth will be discoverable to the happy few.
It’s always been a mistake to think of news organizations as manufacturers of a product called news, and it’s a mistake, therefore, to imagine that AI might be able to manufacture the product more cheaply. What you are paying for, when you subscribe to a newspaper, is trust. Trust that the newspaper’s reporters will tell the truth about what their sources have said. Trust that they are doing their best to unearth and share all sides of each story. Trust that the editors will not suppress evidence that is unflattering to the rich and powerful, including the newspaper’s owners. Trust that if the newspaper does fuck up, it will publish its errors and leave intact a record of its mistakes. You are paying for a relationship, but it isn’t a personal relationship—when individuals fail in this department, alas, they tend to fail catastrophically—it’s an institutionalized relationship. Musk’s approach to Twitter so far gets basically everything wrong. He’s reckless with the truth, he believes in the myth of individual judgment while having terrible judgment himself, he erases his mistakes instead of going public about his errors, and he seems poised to gut what little mechanism Twitter has had in place for content moderation up to this point, which wasn’t great to begin with. Oh well! Parts of it were fun while it lasted.