Battles in the War over Sensemaking

I agree with Jordan Greenhall that we are already in the midst of a new world war. It’s a war on sense-making.

Rather, it’s a war over sense-making. As in: who or what determines how we make sense of the world?

This is a meta take on McLuhan’s vision of World War III:

“World War III is a guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation.”

— Marshall McLuhan, “Culture Is Our Business”, 1970, p. 66

What are some active battles in this war? I see three:

  1. The most sweeping battle to shape sense-making is over the policies and algorithms of search engines and social platforms. At issue are the product management decisions of social platforms, how their policies are enforced, how they design their algorithms to recommend and retrieve information. Who gets deplatformed? Who gets shadowbanned? Which videos does YouTube’s recommendation engine bring to the top? How does Twitter enforce its terms of service policies? These issues have taken on major significance.
  2. Another battle is over the ideas and ideologies worthy of discussion in the public square. This is related to the previous battle because deplatforming and shadowbanning for ideological reasons has become a tactic in the ideological battle, a way of shifting the board. The inverse tactic — amplifying ideas and giving them a platform — also applies. Thus, one the one hand we have Jared Taylor, the white nationalist who was banned from Twitter. On the other, we have Sarah Jeong, the journalist hired by The New York Times with a history of rabidly anti-white rhetoric. One set of ideas demoted, another promoted. The broader battle here is over the legitimacy of memeplexes and ideologies and the overall Overton Window. These shape our lens on the world. This battle is somewhat more localized than the first.
  3. A third battle is over foreign influence and disinformation. This is a battle over influence of a targeted population, as pursued by foreign adversaries and bad actors (domestic or foreign). The goal may be to shift sense-making in a more favorable direction, or to obliterate it altogether to divide and demoralize a population.

An x-factor in these battles is the emergence of new elements: new social platforms and technologies, and new ideologies and memeplexes. These are the equivalent of fresh territory.

In today’s globalized, participatory information environment, the stakes in these battles is high, particularly the battle over algorithms and policies since it is so sweeping in effect. Control our sense-making, control the world one might say. This is more meta way of thinking about “controlling the memes.”

Brexit and the 2016 election were a wake-up call to the political class. They finally recognized — and viscerally appreciated like a punch to the gut — that sense-making has migrated from newspapers and CNN to social media. That they they had lost control.

They’re now looking for more control. There are some genuine problems to solve and improvements to make, to be sure. I personally take disinformation and foreign manipulation very seriously. And in a sense, it is impossible to be neutral. Algorithms have to recommend something. That being said, we should be exceedingly cautious about attempts to shape or narrow our information choices. It is not easy to separate the intent to manufacture consent from the intent to create a healthy, wide-open information environment.

For me, the guiding principle is authentic, open discourse and a healthy information environment. People should have the freedom to make sense of the world as they choose (though I’m not sure how possible this is). The less centralized control over sense-making, the better in my view.

Regardless of how this plays out, I see us heading towards an era of intense, global, non-linear ideological warfare. A memetic “war among the people,” to borrow a phrase from British General Sir Rupert Smith.

The struggle to shape our sense-making is both political and geopolitical, and these battles will only heat up.

Musings on media, technology, national security, and personal development.

Musings on media, technology, national security, and personal development.