Fossil fuel-powered transport cause a fifth of global CO2 emissions. How & when will we reduce their use?
No-one looks out the train window anymore. Heads bent down as if in prayer, thumbs scrolling; our phone news-feeds delivering dopamine hits more effectively than a casino slot machine. We know the Big Tech algorithms behind the feeds are optimised to press our buttons. The best button-pressers being feed items that are short, sharp and shocking. Nuance, complexity and accuracy be damned. Unfortunately, as the old saying goes:
A lie will go round the world while the truth is pulling its boots on.
We like to think we are above being influenced by untruthful but engaging ‘news’. Yet we seek out, click on, like and subscribe to bloggers, posters, and tweeters that align with our world view. The algorithms refine our news-feeds based on our clicks in a never ending cycle…each refinement tossing up some items less truthful and more shocking. We are all at risk of scrabbling down a conspiracy theory rabbit hole (aka doing our own research) if we mistakenly take untruthful items seriously.
But the lies the feed serves up have a corrosive impact well before we end up completely red or green-pilled. Middle-ground constituencies are being eroded across developed ‘democratic’ economies. The capacity of politicians to compromise, cross the floor or agree bipartisan policies have all but disappeared as we voters become increasingly polarised by our news-feeds.
The asymmetry of doubt
The recent Voice to Parliament referendum result here in Australia is illustrative. The Voice referendum concerned establishment of an indigenous representative group with whom the government would consult regarding draft legislation. The proposal was developed over several years with mostly bipartisan support from both the shit (Liberal) and shit-lite (Labor) parties that dominate the Australian preferential voting system.
The Voice group would have no legal standing to veto, override or change draft legislation. The group would be purely consultative; based on the principle that the people most likely to understand legislation impacts upon indigenous Australians are not Canberra mandarins but indigenous Australians themselves.
Late in the process, just a few months before the referendum, the leader of the shit party broke away from the bipartisan position. What happened next followed the now familiar Liar's playbook (as seen with Brexit and US election campaigns):
- Repeat the lie
- Don’t expect most people to believe the lie, instead,
- Exploit people’s doubt.
In this case the lie was that the Voice to Parliament was a slippery slope towards aboriginals reclaiming suburban backyards from non-indigenous homeowners. This lie was allowed to metastasise via all available platforms - forcing our shit-lite prime minister to reassure Australians on talkback radio that suburban backyards would be safe.
The shit party’s senior leadership went all in on step four of the Liar's playbook; rallying voters with the chant ‘if you don’t know, vote no’.
The use of the Liar's playbook meant the referendum was on a hiding to nothing. Australia’s conservatism, coupled with our entrenched racism, delivered a national no vote of 60 percent. Given the Liar's playbook is so effective at creating doubt, constitutional scholars in Australia are concerned that it may be impossible for Australia to pass any future referendum concerning other constitutional issues.
The climate action industry
The racist right are not alone in the use of the Liar’s playbook. Stating we can achieve climate goals by increasing renewables while simultaneously reducing fossil fuel burning AND maintain our standards of living is perhaps the most oft repeated climate action lie. A carbon negative, high standard of living future can’t be achieved with ‘renewables’ alone (or as I prefer to call them, intermittents).
As COP28 illustrated, when push comes to shove, no one is planning a lower standard of living as an emissions reduction strategy. Net Zero by 2050? No more than a can kicked down the road. Our actual plans are to increase use of whatever energy is easiest to access to support our economic and political systems: fossil fuels.
Meaningful reductions in fossil fuel burning by 2050 will require a ramp up in all available alternatives, such as hydro, geothermal and nuclear power. The nuclear power industry has few friends within the militant Green Left. It isn’t without its problems. But militantly lying that nuclear waste is unmanageable or that reactors can't be built safely doesn't help anyone. Managing the community doubt generated by these tactics creates regulatory delays and increases the cost of progressing reasonable nuclear power strategies.
The truth may not be 'somewhere in the middle', but elsewhere out of sight
A ‘commonsense’ approach to synthesising conflicting narratives is to assume the truth is somewhere between the extremes. Mainstream media make a point of inviting ‘both sides’ to debate a controversial issue. But what if the substantive issue or truth needing addressing is simply not 'trending' on our algorithm driven news-feeds?
Subsidies for EVs are debated in many jurisdictions but not public transport subsidies. Yet subsidising public transport could save at least 100 times the greenhouse emissions and scarce natural resource use of one EV driver.
Our political systems make no attempt to address mass-media concentration in the hands of the self-serving super rich; nor the impact of big tech algorithms on political consensus building. Instead, we debate the pros and cons of funding public broadcasters.
We tax and restrict Big Tobacco advertising to arrest smoking related disease. Where is the debate about taxing and restricting Big Food advertising to assist arresting the decades-long and deteriorating Big Food related obesity pandemic?
A withered fourth estate
Here in Western Australia, in response to the tech giants' online 'news' revolution, our sole daily newspaper decided it would no longer be a ‘paper of record’. It slashed editorial, news and investigative reporting staff and switched to a tabloid (read brain-numbing tosh and owner's political interests only) format. In doing so, the local paper was merely sliding down the same information quality slope as most other newspaper mastheads across Australia and the developed world generally.
Most developed economies still have public broadcasters with functioning news services. However, increasingly they conform to the clickbaity tricks and 'publish first and check later' approach of the tabloids; if only to compete for eyeballs and justify ongoing government funding. Increasingly, publicly funded broadcasters must tread a fine line, risking the consequences of biting the government hand that feeds, when tackling contentious issues. This weakens their effectiveness at combating the drift of the Overton Window in the direction desired by private broadcast media plutocrats.
So, with the fourth estate having its last rites read to it, where can we find glimpses of our economic, social and environmental realities and substantive commentary or discussion about them?
Big Tech and AI - help or hindrance?
The default search engine installed on your tablet, laptop or phone is unlikely to help you. Bing and Google are designed to serve up what will make you click ads, not accurate information. You can try and anonymise search engine returns by reducing how much big tech tracks you - by turning your smart phone/tablet into a dumb and otherwise not very useful device.* Even then, Google has just been fined $5 Billion for tracking private browsing users (AKA incognito) mode.
'Tech' news aggregators like Flipboard, Reddit or Fark are in the same game of eyeballs and dopamine hits as Big Tech (to quote Fark: the 'funny interesting and notable'). As such, they often rely on the same Big Tech algorithms and feed techniques. SmartNews tries to offer 'both sides' but as discussed above - can't really help if important truths and issues are not trending as part of the mainstream discourse.
Several search engines, in addition to Bing and Google, have been launched spruiking their generative AI credentials. Worthy of several posts in its own right, generative AI is probably just coming off the initial ‘inflated expectations’ peak of the Gartner technology hype cycle. Apart from my frustration at a bot suggesting I should look for something other than the very thing I want to find in my email archive (thank you Microsoft), there are issues of bias, opacity and copyright infringement.
Critically, generative AI doesn’t have a fact checking capability yet. In its eagerness to please, generative AI is prone to using incorrect references or just making stuff up in support of a particular argument or position. Sensible question in may mean garbage out - albeit written in slick, persuasive and grammatically correct prose.
The speed with which generative AI tools can vomit out any desired length and style of social media post makes it a perfect tool for abuse. The smallest group of protagonists can propagate subtle theme variations at light speed across all platforms using generative AI. All items apparently by different 'authors'. The catchiest of which will be picked up and promoted by the Big Tech algorithms.
Where is the human editor (I can trust)?
Platforms like Substack, Medium and YouTube have facilitated an explosion of specialist blogging, vlogging, podcasting and streaming media sites and content. Some of these sites have great information and ideas. Several platforms have a paid subscription model. But who has the time to sign up individually and garner value from somewhere between fifty or hundred independent subscriptions in order to cover a decent range of news? Just two decent blog subscriptions offering, at best, four articles a month are more expensive than a subscription to the filleted-out right wing masthead that pretends it is Australia's national news daily.
Personally, I am happy to pay significantly more than the subscription price of a major masthead for some good editorial guidance. I do pay subscriptions to listen ad-free to podcasters/streamers who interview a diverse range of informed, reasoned and insightful individuals with genuine specialist knowledge of the topics they discuss. Some are actively promoting important issues to try and get them on the mainstream table. You know - like editors of quality mainstream media giants of the past. But they just don't have the reach as individual podcasters demanding subscriptions.
At this point I should mention TheConversation.com. This site offers a feed of good quality news style articles authored exclusively by senior academics affiliated with a university or research institution. It rates very highly in terms of factual accuracy. A key limitation however is the narrow author base. Ex-academics and other informed non-academic individuals with deep practical expertise are excluded. How does the saying go? Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach!
I live in hope that within short order, better news-feed models will emerge. Models that include reestablishing the art of human editorialship in their brief; and perhaps also offering some form of financial security to good content creators. Perhaps an 'all you can eat' subscription model instead of having to subscribe to each creator separately, with daily commentary from informed human editors rather than a dumb, algorithm driven 'trending' landing page.
Perhaps then we will be better informed and can engage in more meaningful and useful discourse; rather than continuing to scroll and troll our way to extremism. In the meantime, perhaps we could try to scroll less, look out the window...and connect with each other a bit more.
Until next time: the individual below seems to have mastered the Liar's playbook. You may be surprised who he learnt it from. Enjoy the video!
* Not for the fainthearted: Step 1 - sign out of ALL your device’s accounts (yes - including email, address book backup, Strava - everything!). Step 2 - use a random IP address and VPN connection (and/or a TOR circuit) and a privacy oriented browser for all online search. Step 3 - try to remember to manually clear all the cookies and history of your browser every session so the algorithms aren't learning about you. Step 4 Reboot your phone frequently, or better, install a custom privacy oriented ROM (see e.foundation for an example).