Unlikely Champions Of Critical Thinking?

Been following the state of the world for a bit (who hasn’t…?).

I recently read this BBC article about the deeper implications of propaganda and blatant lies and social media role, its impact in society and the concept of Post-Truth.

That spawned a number of thoughts, especially when I put them into the context of this great piece about morality and social divide.

That led to read a number of other pieces across different media sources… and a picture started forming in my mind.

It seems to me that fake news and misinformation is only part of the problem. It seems to me that we, as humans, especially in the first world, have lost our ability to treasure the value of civil liberties, freedom and democracy and actually understand a) what they REALLY stand for and b) the long term impact of our actions and decisions.

It seems to me that whether we subscribe to the left/right/center or everything in between, we have lost our ability to accept and understand other points of view. We have become so radicalized in our own views of the world that we have engineered an environment where creating bridges is almost impossible. We have lost our ability to apply critical thinking, judgment and objectivity. And we certainly have lost our ability to laugh at ourselves.

I am lucky enough to have an eclectic family that represents very different parts of society, and I consider that an advantage when it comes to understanding how people might think. For a bit of background, half of my family comes from rural backgrounds in Spain. My extended family is Turkish, my daughters are British and I am an engineer with higher education and very pragmatic views of the world.

Over last Christmas’ lunch I discussed a number of topics with one of my relatives who is a Professor in Business Administration and Natural Resources Management in a well recognized Spanish university.

During the discussion we touched on Brexit, Spanish crisis, Trump’s raise, ISIS, migratory crisis and the state and “feeling” of our world.

I am no expert in any of these fields, neither on the even more wide-ranging topics of socioeconomics, geopolitical uncertainty and human psychology in general.

However I consider myself a good observer and someone “who connects the dots”. And I believe my exposure and experience working in digital media and the communities and groups it impacts, provides me with certain authority and credibility when I touch upon those topics.

But please feel free to disregard what I will say as complete nonsense…

Back to the discussion, one of his views is that there are a number of very clear parallelisms with a number of times in history when things went… well, down the drain… and that it seems inevitable that we are doomed to go through another “global war” (that resonates with the above BBC article).

World Wide or not, and where the battlefields might be fought is up in the air, but there are significant and unequivocal signs that point to an unprecedented (in recent times) raise of populist incendiary propaganda, a growing social divide and unrest (beyond wealth factors), massive humanitarian crisis, a growing mistrust and disappointment on democratic and governmental institutions and a general pessimistic feeling for where the world is heading.

With regards to the topic of war, it might not be in the short term, but his views are that our children will witness and suffer it.

Sadly and unfortunately, I do not disagree. I am pessimistic with regards of where we are headed. That is, unless we manage to spawn a new focused awareness and hyper-social conscience.

In that discussion, things got heated around the role of social media and its reach. He maintained (initially) that we are exactly in the same situation we have been through history with regards of social unrest, geopolitical tension and social evolution and reach of propaganda.

I completely disagreed.

We are in the most educated, hyper-connected and globally accessible unbounded and unfiltered information age we have ever been and we might ever be.

We also live in a world, for the most part, of instant gratification with an incredibly poor strategic and medium term view of our actions, decisions and impact.

Most of us in the first world live in a society in which we consume information in a compulsive manner, for the most part, without checking who or where it comes from or are willing to challenge it, as long as it resonates with what we believe. And if it doesn’t, well, we’re very quick to stand against those dissident voices.

We don’t distil its essence, implications the context of where and when that information is created, disseminated, and for what purpose. And why would we?

There is no one to blame, this is just our nature. This is what we do. We are humans and we seek comfort in similar views. We are used to get things in a silver spoon. Regardless of your background.

Some of the audience reading this piece will disagree wholeheartedly: “I don’t do that, I like cross-referencing sources and get different points of view on subjects”.

But it would seem to me that you are a minority. And even if you REALLY do, do you fall into the echo-chamber trap?

We are driven by different values and moral compasses (whether you consider yourself right/left/center or a combination of) that instead of making us more understanding, puts us on a self-righteous position of self-proclaimed moral superiority. And we look up to others that think and act like us. And we cluster.

It is not necessarily about education or economic power or wealth or influence. It is about personal experiences, exposure, values, morality and our capacity to evolve as we incorporate experiences and learnings into our own psychology and personas.

And it is about the repercussions that these newly acquired views have in the environments or communities we seek comfort and acceptance in (for example your family, your friends or the social communities you belong to).

It’s about that intrinsic value scale of each one of us that drives us and makes us agree or disagree with our peers and very often makes us hide our real thoughts and beliefs for the sake of acceptance.

Your average Joe and Jane possibly don’t care about philosophy or politics or even science. They might have shallow interests in it, but we happily will consume and accept whatever is thrown at us as long as it resonates with what we believe.

We are tribal entities. Thanks to the digital world we can belong to an unlimited number of tribes. Being at the town level, at the Facebook or forum level, or the intellectual circles we consider ourselves most comfortable with, or aspire to be.

And we are the holders of the truth.

And on top of our tribal psychology… let’s layer the unprecedented speed of technological developments.

Let’s factor in automation and its implications with regards to unskilled workforce (or skilled…, as this Japanese insurance company has replace their employees with an AI).

Let’s factor in the amplification power of social media, the proliferation of fake news sites with different goals, from economic empowerment of communities (take as an example the little Macedonian town that got rich via Ad revenue from fake news) to misinformation or political purposes (the whole Brexit campaign, the Russian hacking, the leaks).

Let’s factor in the easiness of idea-spreading via digital (secure or not) channels, being good or bad, accurate or lie.

Let’s factor in the right to be cryogenically frozen and potentially awaken in the future (and please let’s ignore the religious debate here).

Factor in anything you want… You can see that people will react with awe, fear, skepticism, negationism and plain embracing of change. And something won’t change… people will still consume what they are fed.

If we take into consideration all the above factors, the echo chambers and amplification effects that social media and TV and other distribution channels have in our lives, we have before us an unstoppable landscape of digital and social transformation and reach of unprecedented and unquantifiable consequences.

And it can be really good. And it can be really bad.

So the question is not how we stop this… The question is, we, as digital pioneers, how do we harness this power?

How do we leverage this infinite source of information consumption and assimilation for the betterment of our societies (in plural) and the protection of our civil liberties whilst we compromise, till the extent of the possible, with opposing views?

How do we reconcile our different ethical, moral and religious views and we channel our differences into a constructive path as opposed to a divisive one?

I do believe we are the most educated world population there has ever been. And it will only increase. But access to information and its consumption is not a synonym of understanding.

Sure, technologically we can build systems that detect to the extent of the possible fake news. We can use machine learning with human supervision to build reputational systems and credibility scores and factor ethics in. We can spend years building the most sophisticated infrastructure where the media, the Facebooks and the Googles of the world can create filters and ways of warning humans of the veracity and provenance of the information that they consume and ratings for the ethic compliance and moral implications… we can spend years building the most sophisticated systems that leverage blockchains to address identity issues.

There is no doubt in my mind that we need those. And we are working on those. And we know these media and social giants are already tackling their responsibility in those areas.

But a) that can be a double-edged sword and, perhaps more importantly, b) it will only go as far as the people who consumes information want to take it.

So what is there beyond that…? What is there that is more fundamental in human nature that needs to be promoted, nurtured and grown?

Well, in my uneducated view on all those topics, I want to believe that there is one fundamental aspect in human nature that is severely underdeveloped globally and that transcends financial, moral, political, religious, technological, national and social views.

That aspect is critical thinking. The ability to absorb, analyze, understand, prioritize, challenge and question the information that is presented to us. Willingly and naturally. The ability to understand, contextualize, assimilate and equip ourselves with enough objective information to make informed decisions. And to awake the desire in people to do so.

I want to believe that millions of years of evolution have equipped us with the necessary tooling to develop a bit these skillset. I want to believe that as humans we can actually THINK. Regardless of what you believe and what you stand for, regardless of your social circles, regardless of your habits and hobbies and vices.

I want to believe that we have NOT become so complacent that we have an allergy to think, debate and grow.

And that we actually want to DO things, not only debate them ad nauseaum in the media circus we are so used to.

We can all do that. We do it regularly with the stuff we believe in… We just don’t challenge ourselves to do it, a little bit, beyond our comfort zones. And that is a problem. That is, in my view, our problem.

Let’s say you agree with me… So how do we tackle it?

Couple of thoughts, education and oh… EDUCATION. So only one… sorry.

But education that spawns beyond schools (indeed a foundational block there!) and ages. Education that is delivered transparently and pervasively through a myriad of channels to the vaster and wider reaches of our human populations.

Education that runs head-to-head against the misinformation and excluding social trends and campaigns but that is tailored to the communities that require it.

That is… naïve, isn’t it? …very.

But here is a thought. We all care about something. I might like to follow politics, science and technology… you might care about building furniture or fishing or the arts; you might care about music or sports…

We all have our mental affiliations…

So… can we tap into those? Can we use (without disregarding the needs for technological improvements and corporate, social and civil responsibilities of companies, governments and communities) the symbols of these communities to lead this educational transformation? This next step in rational thinking?

Since we are in unchartered territories… perhaps we need to go crazy with our ideas… so let’s suggest something stupid…

Can we convince people that traditionally would seem to be unlikely champions of critical thinking to help?

Can we sit at the same table Donald Trump, Elon Musk, Tarantino, Beyonce, Trent Reznor, Neil Young, The Pope, Eminem and help them have a constructive conversation?

Can Madonna or Lady Gaga do a TED talk?

Well… perhaps that is aiming at too much… (is it?)

But, can we engage the leaders of communities that have far wide reach, regardless of the nature of their communities, to invest a tiny percentage of their influence and creativity on promoting critical thinking? On sending not a sided message, but a message that promotes THINKING?

At the end of the day these people stand for something. And that is why they got followers, supporters and draw like-minded people.

Is that naïve? Is that a lost cause?

Is that a crazy idea?