Serendipity

  • Fiction

Yesterday, more or less by chance, Mr. Sum saw on YouTube a conversation between Lawrence Krauss and Noam Chomsky. It was recorded in 2015. Chomsky was 86 years old at the time and, as always, exceptionally clear. He believes all kinds of things, for example that terrorism and human rights violations should be combated by everyone. In the meantime, he doesn’t want to convince. No propaganda.

What he believes is driven by the realization that “us” in the West and “them” in those other regions fail to see or not want to see acts of terrorism and human-rights violations in our own back yards but succeed in seeing and damning them in other jurisdictions.

“Us” and “them” groups not only emerge between but also within regions. Sherif’s Robbers Cave experiment showed in 1951 for instance that little is needed for pre-adolescents to boost such dynamics.

But we know little about that. Especially when we compare such knowledge with what we now know about (quantum) mechanics and the behavior of small particles. This knowledge is growing exponentially, but is currently limited to the level/scales of medium-sized molecules. When considering “us-them” dynamics we are thrown back to where we have to make do with more is different. Knowledge about the behavior of individuals in groups is of this nature and not very reliable. Actually this is an important motive for Mr. Sum to work on a platform for toy world simulations.

Messrs Chomsky and Sum grew up in times when there were desperate searches for explanations of the origins and development of WWI (1914/18), the Depression (1929) and WWII (1940/45). For them it goes without saying that the accompanying “us-them” dynamics could only arise on the basis of propaganda for “us” and propaganda against “them” and vice versa.

Knowledge behind propaganda is therefore of the utmost importance. Edward Bernays wrote a still-relevant book about it in 1928, and an 8-page summary article in 1947. About producing collective consent (“the engineering of consent“). A quote suggests that it is one of the articles Trump has actually read, and also that it might as well have been written today (73 years later):

Today it is impossible to overestimate the importance of engineering consent; it affects almost every aspect of our daily lives. When used for social purposes, it is among our most valuable contributions to the efficient functioning of modern society. The techniques can be subverted; demagogues can utilize the techniques for antidemocratic purposes with as much success as can those who employ them for socially desirable ends. The responsible leader, to accomplish social objectives, must therefore be constantly aware of the possibilities of subversion. He must apply his energies to mastering the operational know-how of consent engineering, and to out-maneuvering his opponents in the public interest.

It’s all a bit scary. I would have put it aside as amoral if I had encountered it earlier, Mr. Sum thought. But the world is at a stage where it has become necessary to better understand, recognize, and where necessary confront (the mechanisms behind) propaganda. Bernays shows how complex and tough that matter is. Anyone who is sensitive to this will see that he recognizes a kind of natural deep-state situation in any form of democracy. Chomsky acknowledged this much later and sketched a picture of it in a book he wrote together with Herman.

Sum’s chance meeting with Chomsky and Krauss opened the way for him to Bernays as the principal of a whole series of knowledge fragments that contribute to successful propaganda and that can play roles in his toy worlds. So that’s a risk. But those knowledge fragments were sorely missed in its design. Sum makes a decision: continue. If the use of propaganda techniques is dangerous, the dangers are likely to be even more difficult to face if they could not be simulated in the behavior of and in toy worlds.