Creating Value in a Post-Truth World
I must begin this article with an admission of gross negligence. As a writer, as a freelancer, as a guy who likes Burke way too much, I’ve failed to anticipate a media movement that is central to this current era.
Truthiness? Yeah, totally, I was in the loop on that one. The rise of social jealousy? Yep, owned that. But when it comes to the rise of the post-truth life, I sadly (and incorrectly) assumed that we’d just bring solipsism back into the loop and keep rolling.
Because this whole “post truth” thing is totally different, right?
Kinda. It’s political, and firmly rooted in the orange portion of the anglosphere. It’s meant to refer to how American political parties have pivoted toward emotionally-driven campaign strategies that de-emphasize policy in order to make stronger “value based” appeals that don’t always align with the facts as we currently understand them. But it’s more than that.
It’s about being loud, instead of right. It’s content saturation, pop media dominance, the attention economy, and a bunch of other things rolled into one. The post-truth era is the death of “truth above all” and the transition into a if-they-read-it-we’ll-write-it mentality that’s far greater than just yellow journalism.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a content creator, a freelancer, an entrepreneur, or just sick of all the noise. The post-truth era is being felt everywhere. People are selling feelings about facts instead of facts about feels, and it’s turned just about every market into a grey one. For some people, this makes setting goals and building careers hard. If the truth doesn’t matter, what does?
This is something I’ve wrestled with personally as a content creator. Radical (self)honesty is something that I pursue, but I’m also in a position where many of my potential clients expect a post-truth spin I’m uncomfortable supplying, and it’s from this intersection of personal values and professional demands that this article has sprung.
If you’re worried about how you’re supposed to find (and create) value in a world ruled by spin, don’t worry; you’re not alone. In this article you’ll find my mishmash musing about what post-truth really means, why it’s important, and how we can continue to create value anyways.
What “Post-Truth” Means
When we filter reality based on comfort, we can’t grow.
The post-truth era is a plateau, or at least a potential plateau, in the otherwise exponential curve of social growth the world has experience in recent decades. It’s a transition away from evidence-driven progress, that exists to milk what is at the cost of what could be. It’s vaguely reminiscent of the fall of Sumer, but with more talk shows.
Instead of flooding our crop lands with salt through ill-considered irrigation systems, however, we’re flooding ourselves with information in a desperate bid to distract ourselves on our lunch breaks. More content (written, recorded, rendered) is generated each day than a person could consume in their entire lifetime. This isn’t just the newfangled novel bringing about the fall of Greece; it’s a level of narrative saturation which defies measuring.
Our current content glut allows constant entertainment, but the degree to which people engage with their media is significantly reduced. Our tolerance for boredom, our ability to slog through complex things in order to reap delayed rewards, has practically disappeared, but there’s so much money in the market that it can’t stop. We’re keep planting faster, when the soil needs to recover.
Which means, of course, that people are using dirtier and dirtier tactics to pull attention. Their crops aren’t growing, so they’re sacrificing taste for the sake of reliability. They use emotional ploys, suspense and fulfillment models, deliberately inaccurate headlines, and oppositional language to create engagement with otherwise weak content. There’s so much information out there that it isn’t a matter of being right, it’s a matter of tribalism. People don’t want to hear everything. They want to feel happy or justified, and nothing else. They just want to hear from their tribe.
Sometimes that’s innocuous. Sometimes it’s just a matter of style. Sometimes we prefer to get our beard oil recommendations from The Art of Manliness instead of Mr. Porter because we like Brett’s style. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having a tribe. But when tribalism trumps accuracy, there’s a problem.
But when the attention economy turns into the emotional economy, truth is quickly edged out for “engagement” and “infotainment.” Anything from opposing tribes is ignored (because they’re wrong and evil) and anything from our tribes is believed, because they’re just and righteous. We eat the non-believers.
When was the last time you changed your mind on something?
This post-truth mentality often flies the flag of skepticism. After all, since people are peddling emotions instead of facts, aren’t strong filters a good thing? Don’t we need to double down on the truths we hold close and surround ourselves with positive supporters and drown out the negativity?
Skepticism is great,in theory, but the post-truth content cycle isn’t for skeptics. Skepticism doesn’t involve insulating yourself from facts you don’t accept and using emotional appeals to prop up your world view and your mood when the 2:00pm slump hits. That’s solipsism.
This isn’t just a matter of feels > reals or party before god or The Onion only being strange because it’s honest, either. If you want to change opinions or expand horizons, you need to put in more time, effort, and money than most people reasonably have. If you’re doing it for a living, it’s a lot easier to play to the audience that already supports you (which is pretty large) instead of converting “the enemy.”
And when it comes to calling out the opposing tribe, being the loudest noise is easier than being the clearest signal, especially when people don’t want to listen. Noise has its own profit margin.
Yes, this is the part where I start talking business. I’m a freelancer, remember?
This whole “post-truth” thing is an explicit acknowledgement that self-protective solipsism has been aggressively monetized. It’s the acknowledgement that being right isn’t enough anymore, especially when you’re trying to make people less comfortable and more active. Screw toxic masculinity; we’re talking about toxic capitalism.
You see it in how pop media has been monetized. You see it in how unicorns go public. You see it in the fake news on Facebook and the stolen shirts in Hot Topic and the entirety of Tom’s Shoes. You see it in greenwashing. You see it in crime reporting and retweet ratios and virality metrics and fake product reviews. Welcome to the spin era.
The post-truth era is a mish-mash of politics, economics, and bullshit. Post-truth means we’ve deliberately created an ambiguous media market in order to make selling lies easier than selling truth. In our grand effort to “change things for the better” we’ve removed our link to how things actually are.
Truth still has value, but there’s a new currency on the market. And no one wants your dirty fiat dollars when there’s attention to be bought.
Where Solipsism Fits In
The last time we were doing this Fin de Siècle stuff, the focus was on nihilism; the wealthy are wealthy and the poor are poor, nothing I do matters. Now, everyone’s worked up about the fact that we live in isolated media-fueled bubbles that perpetuate our personal fictions at the cost of social development and leave us without valid anchors.
If you want to change that, stop selling comfort. We’re not caught up in this post-truth market because no one wanted to label their VR headset “The Randian Fugue Box.” We’re here because we’ve built an economy that sells psychological comfort as its top commodity.
When was the last time you defined your philosophies, let alone defended them as anything other than singular truth?
The great bit with solipsism is it allows you to define everything in the singular, rather than as the incomplete product of aggregate evidence than exists in a setting with a plethora of alternatives. There’s no evidence inside the bubble; just conformity and naive opposition.
The number of truths we have that are so solid they merit the singular are startlingly rare. We get over that by picking and choosing and creating echo chambers that only show us the things we agree with, turning the plurality into noise we ignore.
Combining solipsism with post-truth media gives us a more accurate picture of the world than relying on either concept alone. We isolate ourselves, creating single-truth environments for the sake of comfort and stability. The noise around us doesn’t care about what is real; just about how we feel, and our abilities to control how much truth and untruth we’re exposed to is limited, thus adding to the intentional isolation.
We’re where we are because of this contradiction. The desire for a singular truth in a multi-truth environment, fueled by a pop media machine that’s entirely too willing to give each person the truth they desire.
We need to accept ambiguity in addition to boredom. Sometimes, when you dig into the data and try to piece things together nothing’s there. And that’s okay. Singular answers are rare. Aggregate information rarely points out the conclusive answers people look for. Having the presence of mind to say I don’t know is incredibly important. Expand your bubble. Look at more than just the shadows on the wall.
I opened this with the grave admission that I originally though post-truth was just solipsism with a more marketable name, when in fact it’s a multifaceted social trend that can only be appreciated in it’s dayglow-orange context. It’s solipsism, it’s tribalism, it’s media saturation, it’s spin. It’s exit-intent popups that can’t be disabled. It’s the new normal, supposedly.
Don’t Dump Your 5-Year Plan Just Yet
There’s a lot of doom and gloom up there in the first chunk of this article, and for good reason; I’m an angry metro-hemian writer who dislikes the fact that even the cannabis market has been eclipsed by solipsistic spin.
If you’re a hopeful freelancer or writer or creative of any sort, though, don’t let the post-truth era sideline your plans. It’s not the market we grew up with, but it’s still a market we can succeed in.
The first step involves getting your shit in order. Drop your bullshit and be real for once.
Being emotionally aware and controlling how you engage with (and respond to) the noise around you is incredibly important. Pop media uses emotional hooks, and the post-truth model cares more about how it makes you feel than what it actually says. The truth is out there, but it’ll require you to seriously expand your comfort zone.
Before you can help other people do anything, you need to be honest. Radically self-honest. Not in the Tara Brach we-really-don’t-know-how-to-mic-a-speaker-so-let’s-just-pretend-we-can’t-hear-those-squicky-sounds way. I’m talking about on-the-streets radical self-honesty, that’s built up from the intersection of Stoicism and Existentialism and just being mindful for once. You don’t need to purge your demons for two hundred dollars a day at a place with no wifi and bad plumbing. Just recognize who you are.
Fix your relationship with boredom.
Fix it now. Being bored isn’t bad, doing boring things isn’t bad, and searching for boring truths doesn’t make you a bad person. There’s nothing wrong with not being entertained, and deliberately pursuing truths that don’t entertain you is a great way to learn new things.
We demonize dense literature. We make fun of people who enjoy mucking about with data. We celebrate the hatred of reading. Instead of finding things out for ourselves (and learning that we’re not as smart or insightful as we think) we wait for pop media to distill new knowledge into click-bait so we can consume it on our lunch breaks. Take the time to change that.
And yes, that means you’ll develop a close relationship with databases and pivot tables. Yes, that means you’ll need more technical knowledge. Yes, that means making phone calls and talking to strangers. Yes, that means being humble instead of being right. Science is a method, not a class of workers. Use it.
The Urge To Give Up Is The Signal To Work Harder
Our natural desires are self-protective, not self-progressive. If all you do is listen to your body say I’m tired, I’m hungry, I’m scared, you’ll stay weak. If all you do is listen to your doubts, you’ll never grow.
With that said, do things the right way. Monetize ethically. Don’t take shortcuts, don’t lie to your customers for the sake of a better quarter. Don’t complain that the people who buy into post-truth have a better market share. You’re here because you want to do things differently, right?
And don’t count on “catching a break.” Who the hell relies on catching a break to succeed, beyond the post-truth narratives that are being sold by the monopolies everyone is railing against? Even Susan Boyle isn’t Susan Boyle anymore. She’s hustling like the rest of us. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, the work is the work.
Value is value, truth is truth; pivoting and selling out are two very different things.
Value In A Post-Truth World
This’d sell better with shorter paragraphs and more pictures, but it’s a bit late for that. Convincing people to change requires emotional appeals, well-positioned content, broad audiences, and an understanding of what sells. You can circumvent the noise, but you still need to compete. Competition isn’t just a capitalist thing.
But you can cut the spin, cut the leveraging, and focus on long-term value. You don’t need to make unicorns that dominate markets or genres, you don’t need to be a thought leader, you don’t need to create an overnight revolution. You don’t need to be an authority. Your business doesn’t need to scale. You don’t need movie deals or merchandise, you just need to respect your customers as much as you respect yourself.
Once you get off the growth-at-any-cost treadmill, creating value is easy. Be humble, work hard, and admit your faults. Don’t claim qualities or status you don’t possess. Feel deeply, but slowly. Accept boredom and ambiguity. Stop using authenticity as a buzz word; let it grow from the intersection of your dedication and the pleasure you derive from your work.
There isn’t a link to a newsletter or an ebook at the end of this. I (still) have no clue how to ethically monetize my personal beliefs, which is partially the point here. Compromising your values for the sake of accelerated monetization is an easy way to turn your signals into noise. If I ever figure out how to turn a profit from this facet of my writing, I’ll let you know.
Post-truth media is a political product, but it’s a symptom of a larger solipsistic egoism. It’s the product of a comfort-obsessed, ambiguity-fearing, self-isolated mass of people who fear their own agency too much to produce measurable change. Nihilism has evolved, and it’s more than just edgy young men roaming the Russian countryside and converting serving staff to the cult of not caring; it’s an idea that any truth can be the truth if enough people agree with you.
And just as the way we produce media and commit politics change, so does our understanding of it. I’ve given twenty different conflicting definitions of a word that’s only being talked about because of a dictionary. If you’re looking for a more coherent answer, ask me again in twenty years.
For now, go make truth. Create value. Pierce bubbles. Learn things that other people are too comfortable to learn. Get really into pivot tables. Go build a better lamp. Go do everything the hard way. It’s worth it.
Really, though, buy my book.