Have we destroyed truth? How can we live in a fake news world? When will The Experts Strike Back? To find out, I blagged my way into an academic event, looking for answers. The Future of Knowledge was hosted by Knowledge Quarter, an assembly of organisations in the King’s Cross area that includes Soas, the British Library, the British Museum and the Institute of Physics – a bit like The Avengers.
On one of the panels was historian and film-maker David Olusoga, the smartest, most miserable man I have ever heard speak. “The historian Oswald Spengler said that optimism is cowardice,” he began. He went on to draw parallels between now and the 1920s, both being characterised by a flight from reason and the rise of propaganda. Our age is different, he said, because it is worse. He is right. Social media – anonymous, empowering and narcissistic – has polluted our debates. Bot factories in Russia have weaponised misinformation, Trump edges us closer to nuclear extinction with a tweet, yet after a hard weekend hitting the Häagen-Dazs I can’t post a picture of my nipples on Instagram? I have lost track of what I was saying. That is another thing: we all have shorter attention spans.
Is there any hope? Well, we survived the 1920s, admitted Olusoga. Journalist Sally Adee drew a more leftfield analogy with “kayfabe”, a professional-wrestling term. It refers to the double-consciousness of wrestling fans: they enjoy the rivalries, violence and drama of the sport, while being aware that these are fake. Author Shelina Janmohamed reminded us that the internet’s plurality widens the range of human stories and increases connection. She has engaged with egg-avatar Twitter trolls – convincing them of her humanity sometimes bring out theirs.
The thing is, I do not want to convince a troll of my humanity: I am not trying to cross a bridge in a fable. Kayfabe might help me get on to Geordie Shore, but it will not reverse the erosion of our democracy. I had hoped for a simple answer to all this, one that makes a snappy headline. I realise that makes me part of the problem.
I do not want to convince a troll of my humanity: I am not trying to cross a bridge in a fable
At the end of the panel discussion, as most of the audience moved to another theatre, I remained despondently in my seat. The room was given over to a secondary panel, composed of students from a local school, Regent High. Probably here to discuss Snapchat filters, I thought.
Surprisingly, the young people appeared to rely far less on the internet than everyone else I know – they trusted textbooks and qualified teachers. Exercising critical faculties, questioning givens and consulting a range of sources is vital to them, they said, because they are trying to pass exams.
They had one practical concern: tuition fees. They all had friends who had been put off going to university – the very place that consolidates these abilities, and helps us to direct our lives by them. “Does society value knowledge enough to pick up the bill?” asked sixth-form scientist Mobin Ahmadi. Bless. I must ask him about those filters.
So, there you have it – no one has any ideas about how we can teach ourselves, and the next generation, to find truth. This despite the fact that, as I quipped to the bespectacled man who ended up sitting beside me: “There are more eggheads in this room than on Twitter!” He didn’t laugh.
A bit off the top and a weight off my mind, please
What is the difference between a barber and a hairdresser? My suspicion is that all barbers are deaf and equipped only to dispense No 2s all over, but that is because I had some bad experiences as a child. Hairdressers are, by my reckoning, barbers who are licensed to advise, more sympathetic to fashion and will offer you green tea and a head massage. Is there more to it?
I used to chop and change, but then I found a guy I like. We have been going steady. He is … odd. I once told him I had started listening to new music while running. He told me music is a distraction and that, for true runners, the only music is that of the body listening to itself. I have been getting into mindfulness, I said. He described going to the Hindu temple in Neasden, north-west London, to meditate. (He is a tall, white German, with ginger ’fro curls.) I talked about an upcoming work trip to Bologna. “Ask for tagliatelle al ragù, not spaghetti bolognese. Otherwise you will look like a fool,” he said, turning the chair to the mirror and presenting me with my finished haircut. “A fool.”
I do not think he is negging me. Over the years, we have had honest conversations about insecurities. He knows it is hard for me to stare at my face for 40 minutes and not feel like I am looking at a No 2 all over. He knows that I will be unable to muster true enthusiasm, despite his excellent work. He knows I hate seeing him, because to see him is to see myself.
This is why he talks: to fill my head with other thoughts. Maybe it is this sensitivity to our needs – whether it be complex fade specifications or some extra dimension of sympathetic intimacy – that makes the real difference.
Got your (atomic) number, strontium
The original fake news culprits are atoms, because they make everything up. And they are invisible, the cowards. Until a few days ago, that is, when an Oxford student captured the first image of one visible to the naked eye: a positively charged strontium atom, irradiated by a laser, captured with a DSLR camera. Extraordinary. But internet commenters were less impressed. “It’s a time-lapse photo of photon emissions,” they said. “More like the path the atom took over time.” But my favourite shade came from, of all places, the New Scientist: “Strontium atoms are relatively large.”