Allow me to introduce myself
When I was an adolescent idiot, I believed our species' greatest problems—crime, war, prejudice, tyranny—were the result of mere ignorance, and that if people only knew more, they'd become rational and compassionate, and society would flourish.
To make matters worse, I believed this flourishing was inevitable; I viewed history as humanity's journey out of ignorance toward enlightenment, a process of gradual maturation whereby our species would accumulate countless small truths, growing ever wiser, until we finally grasped the Truth, at which point we'd realize how cruel and stupid we'd all been, and then redeem ourselves by creating a techno-utopia.
So in the mid-90s, when I first heard of this new technology—the World Wide Web—which could transmit the world's information to anyone almost instantly, my reaction was virtually religious. Surely this was the first step to permanently vanquishing human ignorance and reaching the promised land of Truth, enlightenment, salvation?
My belief in the promise of the web to fix humanity was why I decided to study computer science at university. I quickly came to regard search engines as the most important aspect of the web, because they were its doorways, dictating the paths people would take through the labyrinth of all human knowledge. And so, shortly after graduation I joined a team tasked with analysing data from Microsoft's newly unveiled search engine, Bing.
It didn't take long for me to realise that the search engine didn't value objectivity highly. For instance, it would often rank sensationalist pages from, say, Salon.com or Mailonline.com above the more neutral-toned pages of news agencies like the AFP.
I learned that this was because the search formula was configured to favour objectivity less than other parameters like popularity. It wasn't that it was harder to create algorithms that could value objectivity (one simple method was to count the number of Russell conjugations in unquoted text). It was just that web-users wanted objectivity less than they wanted interestingness. And, as a business, Microsoft (and Google) had to cater to human desires, no matter how silly.
This discovery was a concussive blow to my techno-utopian idea that the web could cure human ignorance. What good was offering people the truth if they were more interested in consuming gossip, hackery, clickbait, and other forms of vivid fiction?
It seemed the problem with people was not that they didn't know the truth, but that they didn't want the truth. A search algorithm could only be as good as the desires it served, so fixing the bugs in our tech was of little use if we couldn't fix the bugs in our brains. As long as human nature was fundamentally irrational, technology wouldn't civilise us, we'd primitivise it. Upon this realisation, my interest began to shift away from technology to psychology. Perhaps, I wondered, the key to our enlightenment lay in upgrading the algorithms of the mind.
I began to pay close attention to the people around me, scrutinising their words and gestures as I'd once examined computer code, searching for bugs that might be fixed. I wrote articles about some of these bugs, and submitted them to various magazines, but no one was interested in what a junior computer scientist thought about the human mind. I knew that if I was going to be taken seriously, I'd have to do something drastic. And the opportunity soon came.
With the rise of social media in the early 2010s, people became more concerned about the role of the web in spreading delusions and promoting dangerous views. This period saw surges in both jihadism and far-right extremism in the UK, and nowhere was this more apparent than in the town of Luton.
With a large isolated population of ethnic Pakistanis, Luton had long been synonymous with conservative Islam, and it was a major stronghold of the UK's deadliest jihadist network, al-Muhajiroun. Due to what was regarded by some as an Islamic takeover of the town, a young man who went by the name of Tommy Robinson founded the English Defence League, a nativist, anti-Islam protest group. By 2010 the EDL and local Islamists were engaged in an escalating discourse of violence.
Much of the conflict was blamed on online misinformation. EDL attacks were often attributed to Robinson's incendiary social media posts, while Islamist violence was blamed on al-Qaeda or Isis propaganda. In one case, four Luton locals who plotted to kill EDL members and bomb an army base were alleged to have downloaded al-Qaeda propaganda and bombmaking instructions from the web.
Delving deeper into the town's unrest, I read of stories of "Sharia patrols" spray-painting burqas over "immodestly-dressed" women on billboards, of people having their windows smashed with bricks, of Muslims having bacon posted through their letterboxes, of mosques being used to plot terrorist attacks, of mosques being set on fire, and of Muslims and infidels alike being battered bloody in the streets.
Curious, I decided to relocate to the neighbourhood. I wanted to know whether the town's problems were really the result of online misinformation, or if, as I suspected, there was a deeper cause rooted in the human brain.
I rented a place near Bury Park, the neighbourhood where most of Luton's jihadists were concentrated. I approached al-Muhajiroun supporters at their stalls to question them, observed their rallies and protests, attended the same mosques as them, and eavesdropped on them in the streets and in cyberspace.
There's a stereotype of jihadists as wild-eyed cavemen with unkempt beards like frozen explosions, whose answer to everything is "Allahu Akbar!" But the jihadists I encountered in Bury Park were often eloquent and mild-mannered. They were medical students, engineers, architects. They came from stable middle-class families. Society appeared to have given them all the education they could need, and offered them all the opportunities they could desire, and yet, they wanted to burn it all down.
The more I studied these men, the more it became clear their radicalisation couldn't simply be blamed on misinformation or ignorance. They'd received their fair share of good knowledge from the schools and universities they'd attended, and they had the same access to the world's information as the rest of us. But they'd rejected it all to appease pathological prejudices.
Sure, many of them had been led astray by the videos of Anwar al-Awlaki and other online propagandists, but if decades of a mind's education and experience can be overruled by a couple of online hate-sermons, is the real problem with the sermons, or with the mind?
It became even clearer that the main problem was not (mis)information but the mind when I began to monitor the jihadists’ conversations. They spent their days scanning the mainstream media for signs of the fulfilment of apocalyptic prophecies, and any news that could be matched to their prophecies was unquestioningly accepted as true, while anything that didn't was reflexively dismissed as Jewish propaganda. News of every Isis victory became more proof that the group deserved the support of Muslims ("See? God is with them!"), but so did news of every defeat ("See? They're dying and need our help!"). In short, what the jihadists believed was not based on what they saw as much as what they saw was based on what they believed.
What I learned was this: information doesn't enter the mind intact like a puzzle-piece slotted into a jigsaw. Instead, it becomes distorted to fit the shape of its container, like water poured into a vessel. Luton’s jihadists had been given plenty of good, honest facts by society, but these facts had been warped by their biases to fit their delusions.
I'd once wondered what good it was offering people the truth if they were more interested in consuming fiction. But it was now clear that interest wasn't the main problem; even if you could get people to consume the truth, their minds would digest it into fiction.
Researching al-Muhajiroun gradually became harder, because as time went on my research subjects were either arrested or killed. Abu Rahin Aziz stabbed a man in the eye for insulting the warlord Muhammad before skipping bail and fleeing to Syria to become an Isis bombmaker, where he was killed in a targeted airstrike. Six months later, police raided the homes of senior al-Muhajiroun members including the leader of Luton's al-Muhajiroun, Istiak Alamgir, and arrested them. They’d later be jailed.
Once all my main research subjects had been captured or killed, I decided to end my project and began publishing my findings in various articles and also an ebook. Some of my research was published on the blog of the counterextremism think-tank Quilliam, which advised the UK government. I also caught the attention of a national newspaper, the Daily Express, which published a short piece about me.
While public recognition of my work felt good, it was also a liability. As word got round in my neighbourhood of who I really was, people became less friendly toward me, and, since it was no longer safe for me to remain in the town, I left. I'd intended to turn my ebook into an actual book, but by the time I was ready to, al-Muhajiroun was no more, Isis had lost its caliphate, and al-Qaeda was fast losing relevance in the West. I felt that jihadism was declining as a threat worth dedicating my time to.
Fortunately, I found I could apply my insights into Luton's jihadists to regular people all over the world, including myself. I noticed that we're all guilty of twisting the truth to suit our views. As much as I resented the way the jihadists scapegoated all of humanity's problems on Jews, I realized I too had scapegoated all of humanity's problems: on ignorance. And although I thought the jihadists naïve for thinking the solution to everything was a holy book that they’d never read, I too had foolishly believed humanity could be fixed by a single thing: technology.
In short, I realised that most of us are not much more rational than the jihadists; it's just that our irrationalities tend to go unnoticed because they follow society's contours rather than reacting violently against them.
By now, I was mature enough to know that our problems couldn't be blamed on any one thing. The fact that we tended to prefer entertaining fictions over mundane truths was part of the problem, but not the whole problem. As was the fact that we tended to distort the truths we received to better align with our prejudices. And my original scapegoat—plain ignorance—was also part of the problem, although it wasn't so much ignorance of the world as ignorance of our own heads.
This last issue seemed to me to be the most fundamental. We were so busy thinking about the world (cognition) that we neglected to think about our thinking (metacognition). As such, we didn't understand understanding, leaving us at the mercy of every trick of the mind that prevented us from grasping reality, such as its preference for entertainment over truth, and its tendency to twist facts into fiction. It became clear to me that, without metacognition, all the cognition in the world would merely awaken us from one dream into another.
Determined to avoid this trap, I began to think a lot about thinking. As the online culture war reached fever pitch in 2017, I noticed the same tribalism I'd seen in the jihadists emerging in everyone, including myself. A lifelong leftist, I saw that my ideology was making me partisan and irrational, so I reluctantly abandoned my political views. I no longer identify with an ideology, but I retain my basic principles—equality of opportunity, freedom of expression, truth no matter how inconvenient.
Many of my friends who didn't abandon ideology enlisted in the culture war and either became "woke" or "based". This polarisation soon become a major talking point in the media, and the idea I'd rejected years earlier, that algorithms were to blame, became mainstream. Governments and advertisers began ramping up pressure on the tech giants to censor "disinformation" and "hate speech", as if it were possible to quarantine fools from falsehood. Meanwhile, no one seemed to be talking about the real issue—a universe of knowledge without the knowledge to interpret it.
I therefore took it upon myself to spread this meta-knowledge. I became active on Twitter, posting about the psychological traps we all fall prey to. My online following grew quicker than I anticipated, and I took this to mean that there are many of you who, like me, wish to understand ourselves so we might begin to understand everything else. And that is why I’ve launched this blog.
I used to think Truth was a destination, a techno-utopia, a place or moment of ultimate enlightenment. But I now know Truth is a horizon; we'll never quite reach it, but by pursuing it, we'll reach so much else, including, perhaps, a better understanding of the world. So I hope you'll accompany me as I embark, in these pages, on a journey of discovery toward the infinite skyline.