Of Truth and Lies in the Digital Age

Colin Burrow has a thought-provoking essay (title: “Fiction and the Age of Lies”; link: https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v42/n04/colin-burrow/fiction-and-the-age-of-lies) in the most recent London Review of Books (Vol 42, No 4; 20 Feb 2020).

Two long passages (one that has introduces the key concept of the “algo-lie,” a lie that is targeted to the audience most likely to believe it via the by-now ubiquitous algorithms; the other passage a rebuke of Jonathan Coe’s novel Middle England, which I quoted a few posts back.)

“Political lies now tend to be something more than statements by individuals that are designed to mislead: they are partly generated by the desires and beliefs of the lie-ee. They can be algorithmically created to elicit a particular response from an audience that has been microtargeted, and is fed little drips of misinformation it is predisposed to believe. The guiding presumption of algo-lying is that human beings are as manipulable as white mice. The object is to develop a stimulus that provokes the desired behaviour. Send out the stimulus, irrespective of its truth or falsehood; keep sending. Provided the white mice are in a majority and they all head for the cheese it’s a victory. It doesn’t matter if the stimulus is a lie that generates unpredictable side effects, like a loss of trust in institutions, or if the lies designed to appeal to the white mice so enrage the piebald mice that they start a civil war. It’s short-term outcomes that count.”

Middle England (2019) by Jonathan Coe (b. 1961) strikes me as a classic instance of this problem. It’s a Brexit novel which offers comforting stereotypes – the xenophobic former Birmingham car worker, the wonderful Lithuanian immigrant cleaner – while not having anything to say about the technologies that now influence and distort the opinions of those types. A little texting and emailing is the deepest Coe’s characters get into the world of social media. Fiction that recirculates perspectives on the present which correspond closely to a particular strand of print or electronic media isn’t doing the job fiction should do. It knows what its audience wants to hear, and says it. The problem is that it will therefore sound like lies to those who don’t want to believe it. If the main literary consequence of this latest age of lies is to identify the audience for serious fiction with a small group with mutually sustaining and more or less identical political attitudes then we all should be very afraid for the future of fiction.”

I don’t think much in the way of comment is needed.  Burrow has a touching faith that novels are supposed to help us out of our mess by providing a thick analysis of the ways we (and truth) are manipulated using the new digital tools.  He ends the essay with a call for the “great British technonovel of the 21st century” (the British nationalism here must be noted) and the very last sentence of the essay is “But if our present age of lies has one good consequence it would be that book,” as if a great novel would be sufficient consolation for the general woe. Or is that last sentence a joke?  It doesn’t read like one in context.

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