Notes on attention, fake news and noise #4: Jacques Ellul and the rise of polyphonic propaganda part 1

Jacques Ellul is arguably one of the earlier and most consistent technology critics we have. His texts are due for a revival in a time when technology criticism is in demand, and even techno-optimists like myself would probably welcome that, because even if he is fierce and often caustic, he is interesting and thoughtful. Ellul had a lot to say about technology in books like The Technological Society and The Technological Bluff, but he also discussed the effects of technology on social information and news. In his bleak little work Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (New York 1965(1962)) he examines how propaganda draws on technology and how the propaganda apparatus shapes views and opinions in a society. There are many salient points in the book, and quotes that are worth debating.

That said, Ellul is not an easy read or an uncontroversial thinker. Here is how he connects propaganda and democracy, arguing that state propaganda is necessary to maintain democracy:

“I have tried to show elsewhere that propaganda has also become a necessity for the internal life of a democracy. Nowadays the State is forced to define an official truth. This is a change of extreme seriousness. Even when the State is not motivated to do this for reasons of actions or prestige, it is led to it when fulfilling its mission of disseminating information.

We have seen how the growth of information inevitably leads to the need for propaganda. This is truer in a democratic system than in any other.

The public will accept news if it is arranged in a comprehensive system, and if it does not speak only to the intelligence but to the ‘heart’. This means, precisely, that the public wants propaganda, and if the State does not wish to leave it to a party, which will provide explanations for everything (i.e. the truth), it must itself make propaganda. Thus, the democratic State, even if it does not want to, becomes a propagandist State because of trhe need to dispense information. This entails a profound constitutional and ideological transformation. It is, in effect, a State that must proclaim an official, general, and explicit truth. The State can no longer be objective or liberal, but is forced to bring to the overinformed people a corpus intelligentiae.”

Ellul says, in effect that in a noise society there is always propaganda – the question is who is behind it. It is a grim world view in which a State that yields the responsibility to engage in propaganda yields it to someone else.

Ellul comments, partly wryly, that the only way to avoid this is to allow citizens 3-4 hours to engage in becoming better citizens, and reduce the working day to 4 hours. A solution he agrees is simplistic and unrealistic, it seems, and it would require that citizens “master their passions and egotism”.

The view raised here is useful because it clearly states a view that sometime seems to be underlying the debate we are having – that there is a necessity for the State to become an arbiter of truth (or to designate one) or someone else will take that role. The weakness in this view is a weakness that plagues Ellul’s entire analysis, however, and in a sense our problem is worse. Ellul takes, as his object of study, propaganda from the Soviet Union and Nazi-Germany. His view of propaganda is one that is largely monophonic. Yes, technology still pushes information on citizens, but in 1965 it did so unidirectionally. Our challenge is different and perhaps more troubling: we are dealing with polyphonic propaganda. The techniques of propaganda are employed by a multitude of parties, and the net effect is not to produce truth – as Ellul would have it – but eliminate the conditions for truth. Truth no longer become viable in a set of mutually contradictory propaganda systems, it is reduced to mere feelings and emotions: “I feel this”. “This is my truth”. “This is the way I feel about it”.

In this case the idea that the state should speak too is radically different, because the state or any state-appointed arbiter of truth just adds to the polyphony of voices and provides them with another voice to enter into a polemic with. It fractures the debate even more, and allows for a special category of meta-propaganda that targets the way information is interpreted overall: the idea of a corridor of politically correct views that we have to exist within. Our challenge, however, is not the existence of such a corridor, but the fact that it is impossible to establish a coherent, shared model of reality and hence to decide what the facts are.

An epistemological community must rest on a fundamental cognitive contract, an idea about how we arrive at facts and the truth. It must contain mechanisms of arbitration that are institution in themselves, independent of political decision making or commercial interest. The lack of such a foundation means that no complex social cognition is possible. That in itself is devastating to a society, one could argue, and is what we need to think about.

It is no surprise that I take issue with Ellul’s assertion that technology is at the heart of the problem, but let me at least outline the argument I think Ellul would have to deal with if he was revising his book for our age. I would argue that in a globalized society, the only way we can establish that epistemological, basic foundation to build on is through technology and collaboration within new institutions. I have no doubt that the web could carry such institutions, just like it carries the Wikipedia.

There is an interesting observation about the web here, an observation that sometimes puzzles me. The web is simultaneously the most collaborative environment constructed by mankind and the most adversarial. The web and the Internet would not exist but for the protocol agreements that have emerged as its basis (this is examined and studied commendably in David Post’s excellent book Jefferson’s Moose). At the same time the web is a constant arms race around different uses of this collaboratively enabled technology.

Spam is not an aberration or anomaly, but can be seen as an instance of a generalized, platonic pattern in this space. A pattern that recurs through-out many different domains and has started to climb the semantic layers from simple commercial scams to the semiosphere of our societies, where memes compete for attention and propagation. And the question is not how to compete best, but how to continue to engage in institutional, collaborative and, yes, technological innovation to build stronger protections and counter-measures. What is to disinformation as spamfilters are to unwanted commercial emails? It is not mere spamfilters with new keywords, it needs to be something radically new and most likely institutional in the sense that it requires more than just technology.

Ellul’s book provides a fascinating take on propaganda and is required reading for anyone who wants to understand the issues we are working on. More on him soon.

Leave a Reply