In a piece I wrote in 2014 I opined, "If you want to corrupt a people, corrupt the language." I added, "Once it becomes impossible to say the truth with the language we have, it will ultimately be impossible for us to adapt and survive."
In that piece I was complaining about what I dubbed "oil Newspeak," an Orwellian lexicon created by the oil industry to deceive policymakers, investors and the public.
Of course, back then I concerned myself only with words. But with the increasing power of artificial intelligence (AI) enhanced software which is now available to average computer users, practically anyone can alter and/or create images and audio recordings that seem real, but which are entirely concocted. It means that comedian Richard Pryor's famous line—"Who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?"—may very well morph from a joke into a serious question.
Humans understand the world by narrating it. Our narratives are always approximations of reality; we cannot know objectively our reality because we are inside of it and limited in the scope and modes of our perceptions—modes that are shaped by evolution to help us survive, but not necessarily plumb the depths of the universe.
Still, those narratives must be reasonable approximations of the dangers and opportunities we face or they will lead us in the wrong direction. Words can be powerful and images even more so. The power of the iconic is so great that it can easily bypass our logic and slip directly into our minds.
Draftsmen, painters and sculptors have long created images for us to dwell on, many of them filled with mythic animals, immortal beings and historical and non-historical personages. There was a time when most Christians equated depictions of God as an old man on a throne with God himself. And, even here language is important; some religions do not even assign gender to the ultimate ground of being that the word God represents.
Far below the celestial sphere where the Christian God is said to dwell, art also depicted such creatures as dragons and gryphons which represented forces in the universe and in the human psyche, but which were nevertheless taken as real by many.
So, how does this type of depiction differ from taking actor Nicholas Cages' image and placing him in movies he was never in—or worse yet, taking the faces of serious, well-known film actresses and combining them with the bodies of porn actresses in action?
The former examples, of course, are attempts to represent a deeper truth even if they are misleading to the literal mind. The latter are direct attempts at trickery against and ridicule of specific persons. And herein lies the problem. Such power to alter images and audio now threatens not only any prominent person who has been photographed, filmed or recorded, but anyone who has posted video or photos of themselves, their friends or their family on the internet.
Eventually, public understanding will catch up with the technology. Video and photos which seem out of character or, in the case of a prominent person, which are designed to ridicule or defame will simply be dismissed as an AI takedown job, even if the video or photos in question are depictions of real events.
The problem is that as AI becomes more sophisticated, it will become harder and harder to detect fakes, according the MIT Techonology Review article which is also linked above. And, this will inevitably lead to a presumption that all photographic, video and audio evidence of anything from murder to a wedding party is suspect.
How do we anchor ourselves in a world in which neither the narratives we are told nor the images we are shown can be trusted? We can try to do the forensic work ourselves. But since we live in an increasingly complex world in which much of the technical knowledge required to decipher our society is beyond our abilities and our available time to master, the necessary forensic investigation will be all but impossible.
Thus, we will end up, as we often do, relying on others we trust—friends; experts we don't necessarily know personally but respect; religious, business and political leaders—to tell us what is authentic.
Given that even these sources can be duped by (or part of) the vast public relations apparatuses employed by companies, governments, political parties or any wealthy organization, we may end up increasingly at sea in a world of doubtful information. In fact, we already are.
It seems that only a threat that supersedes narrow political, economic and sectarian interests, one that imperils our very survival could break through such a cacophony of misinformation and lead us to seek a common understanding.
Alas, we have such a threat that we call climate change. Climate change is the most well-studied, well-documented phenomenon in history, and yet we are paralyzed as a species. We are sold various narratives that include the following:
- Climate change is not happening.
- Climate change is happening but "natural" and nothing to worry about.
- Climate change is happening, but it will be good for us.
- Climate change will be solved by technology.
- Climate change will disrupt and bring chaos to our global civilization, possibly leading to a dark age.
- Climate change is something that will happen in the future so we don't need to worry about it now.
- Climate change is happening now, and it is already too late to do anything about it, so why bother.
If climate change is unable to harness the human ability to cooperate in the face of an existential crisis, it is fair to ask if there is anything, anything at all, that could get the human species to unite around a well-supported narrative and move forward together toward a shared destiny.
This is the central question of our age. The problems we face cannot be solved by any one individual, community or nation. There are nascent efforts at the community and provincial and state levels that are promising with regard to climate change. But these remain too small for now to alter our collision course with the warming atmosphere and oceans.
History teaches us that societies make dramatic change only when they are forced to. That will be far too late to avoid the worst ravages of climate change which scientists tell us would continue to get worse for the next generation and beyond even if we stopped adding any carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere today—which, of course, we are not going to stop doing anytime soon.
We all love a good story. And, we humans are all storytellers by nature. It is how we cope with the world. But our storytelling skills seem to be no match for the exceedingly complex world we live in. We can narrate the small part we inhabit with some success. But we cannot seem to find a common narrative that joins all humans and all of planetary life together in a way that would allow us to address the biggest threat humanity has ever faced.
Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, Oilprice.com, OilVoice, TalkMarkets, Investing.com, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.