The Electronic Starfield
More information is making us less rational
I - THE ANCIENT INTERNET
From the moment humans were able to fill their bellies long enough to stop and think, they've searched for the meaning of it all. Who are we? Why are we here? What happens when we die? Our distant ancestors looked for clues to such riddles in the enigmatic patterns of nature, from half-intelligible words whispered by wind through trees, to faces sporadically appearing in clouds. Above all, our ancestors sought answers in the stars, tracing lines among them in the hope of unveiling cosmic secrets.
The stars were important to early civilisations because they formed a common reference point, a way to synchronise a society. They acted like a great compass, allowing people to navigate land and sea, and they also helped people keep track of the seasons, enabling agriculture.
But the stars didn't just anchor our ancestors in time and space; they also anchored them in meaning. Astrologers joined the dots in the sky to form constellations depicting mythical scenes and characters, allowing their legends to be preserved and retold. One could even say the starlit sky was a prototype internet; the first system for storing and distributing cultural information across a fixed and universal medium.
The system had obvious limitations. For one, information about myths wasn’t really being stored in the stars as it might be stored on celluloid or circuitry. The information was only ever being stored in people's minds; the stars merely acted as a mnemonic to help the mind remember the myths, or as an illustration to help the myths pass from one mind to another. So the night sky was less like celluloid than like a sprawling cinema screen on which people projected the celluloid in their heads. As such, the system could only be used by those who knew what the stars were supposed to represent, and what the stars represented varied wildly between cultures.
Consider, for instance, the three stars that form Orion's Belt. They're so named because, to the Ancient Greeks, they represented the belt of the mythical hunter Orion who was killed by a giant scorpion, prompting the god Zeus to commemorate the event by placing the hunter in the sky together with the scorpion (which was said to be why the constellation of Orion leaves the sky when Scorpius enters it).
To other cultures, however, Orion's Belt represented very different things. In Christian mythology, the three stars were called the “Three Kings” and chiefly associated with the Three Wise Men who brought gifts to Jesus' baby shower. In Yokut Native American folklore, the three stars represented footprints of the flea god, who hopped through the sky in pursuit of his runaway wives. To the Aztecs, the appearance of the three stars over the mountain Huixachtlan every 52 years signalled a demand by the gods for human sacrifice to stave off the death of the sun.
Clearly, the ancients, who based their lives on the constellations, were not seeing anything real in the sky, but merely the illusions they’d been primed to see by their specific cultures.
Fortunately, we no longer need to consult imaginary patterns to store and distribute cultural information, because we've created a system specifically suited for that purpose: the internet. We're so accustomed to this system that we often forget what a marvel it is. It's a repository not just for a few local myths but for all of recorded human history. A single one of its countless pages can instantly provide more information—and more precise and accurate information—than all the constellations in the sky. And its information can be translated into any modern language and transmitted flawlessly across the world before the astrologer has even put her telescope into focus.
With a sophisticated information system like this, we're surely far less liable to be deluded about the world than were our primitive, flea-god-worshipping ancestors.
Or so we might think.
But what if I told you that the world portrayed by the internet is just as fictional as the world of flea gods and giant scorpions portrayed by the constellations? And what if I told you that browsing the web, far from enlightening us, is even better at deluding us than astrology?
Does that sound absurd? Then allow me to explain.
II – CONNECTING THE DOTS
Contrary to the various creation myths encoded in the stars, humans weren’t created but evolved over millions of years. And we evolved largely for one purpose: to pass on our genes. As such, our brains are not configured to understand the world but to survive it long enough to reproduce.
To ensure a good chance of surviving to sexual maturity, the brain needs to minimise two costs in decision-making: time and energy. It must conserve time because reacting too slowly can be fatal. It must conserve energy because exhaustion and starvation can also be fatal.
In order to save time and energy, the brain uses shortcuts in perception and reasoning known as heuristics. One of the most fundamental heuristics is known as "predictive coding". This is the tendency for the brain to use memory and imagination to fill out missing information in a scene. It gives us potentially life-saving abilities, like discerning the presence of a lion from the vaguest of outlines. Think of it like the autocomplete function whenever you write a text message; your phone will receive the beginning of an input, let's say “li”, and immediately autocomplete it as “lion”, saving you precious time.
While predictive coding makes the brain's information processing quick and energy-efficient, it also makes it prone to error. When our ancestors lived in the wilderness, watching the shadows for signs of predators, they made two types of predictive coding errors. The first was to “autocomplete” a predator when there wasn't one (overinterpretation). The second was to “autocomplete” no predator when there was one (underinterpretation).
In a low-information world like the wilderness, those who tended to underintepret their surroundings (i.e. the oblivious) had a much higher likelihood of being killed than those who tended to overinterpret their surroundings (i.e. the paranoid). As such, the paranoid were more likely than the oblivious to pass on their genes. The result was that the world quickly became filled with jittery apes like us who overinterpreted their surroundings, finding patterns even in pure noise. To put it another way, the need to discern lions and scorpions from the vaguest of outlines caused our ancestors to start seeing them even among the stars.
This paranoid tendency to draw imaginary connections, and see imaginary patterns, is known as apophenia. Arguably the most important type of apophenia is the narrative fallacy. This is when people make false connections, not between stars to form constellations, but between events to form stories.
Just as it was evolutionarily safer to assume a vague outline in the bushes was something rather than nothing, it was evolutionarily safer to assume two events that followed each other were causally linked rather than unrelated. The paranoid live longer than the oblivious.
And so, for the same reason we see figures among stars, we see stories among sequences, and we do this by connecting the events with causes. An example would be believing chicken soup cured your flu because you drank some before you recovered.
In some cases two events may indeed be causally linked, but the link people draw between them is wrong. For example, according to some accounts, the Ancient Greek astronomer Aglaonice, one of the first to use actual science in her observations, correctly predicted a lunar eclipse. The local laypeople, unable to comprehend the means by which she did this, concluded that she was causing the moon to disappear from the sky, which led to her and her disciples gaining a reputation for being witches.
Aglaonice was viewed as a witch largely because Greek mythology was rife with stories of witches. A story is a chronological constellation, and just as the shapes people saw in the stars were influenced by their worldviews, so too are the stories people see in sequences. Our expectations determine the patterns we find in both space and time. They're the dictionary we use to autocomplete the world.
In this sense, narrative fallacies are the most powerful kinds of apophenia, because our narratives influence how we view (and thus autocomplete) the world, and they therefore shape all other instances of apophenia, including other narrative fallacies. The stories we tell ourselves determine the stories we tell ourselves.
Many would argue that the stories the ancients told themselves were compensations for their ignorance, and that we, in our age of reason and hard data, have enough information to not have to fill gaping holes in our understanding with stories, so we autocomplete less, and perceive more. Unfortunately, this is just another story we tell ourselves, and the truth is a little messier.
III - THE ELECTRONIC STARFIELD
Since the way we interpret the world depends on the stories we tell ourselves, culture is the lens through which we see the world.
In ancient times, culture was relatively simple and stable, because the scarcity of knowledge meant a scarcity of ways to join this knowledge together to form stories. Furthermore, culture was largely gatekept by a small elite of priests, whose role it was to interpret the will of the gods—and therefore reality itself—on behalf of the masses.
The idea that a class of priests were necessary mediators between the gods and the common people, a tradition known as sacerdotalism, continued in one form or another throughout history, all the way into the age of television, where a small number of TV stations took the place of the ancient astrologers, offering us interpretations of the world which acted as a common reference point—or mythology.
This all changed with the internet. At the turn of the millennium there was an information explosion, which inflated the amount of data in the world and also spread it far and wide, so that it could no longer be gatekept by elites and was for the first time within direct reach of anyone. The internet turned information from a set menu into an all-you-can-eat buffet.
We're now all our own astrologers, except the datapoints we connect to build pictures of reality are not stars but news articles, tweets, YouTube videos, and Facebook posts—forms of information anyone can produce. As such, there is no longer a common story we as a society tell ourselves, only a cacophony of competing ones. If culture is the lens through which we see the world, the internet shattered it into a million different shards.
This might not be so bad if the information explosion hadn't brought with it another, far greater problem: an apophenia explosion.
The number of possible constellations that the ancients could see in the heavens was limited by the number of stars. In total, there are fewer than 5000 stars visible to the naked eye, and only half of those are visible at any one time. In comparison, the estimated number of bytes of digital data in the world today—over 59 zettabytes, or 59,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes—is sixty times greater than the estimated number of stars in the entire known universe.
One could be forgiven for thinking that having so much information makes us less vulnerable to delusion, but the opposite is true. The mind perceives by collecting the dots then connecting the dots. Since the number of dots is far greater now than it was for previous generations, the number of ways in which dots can be erroneously collected and connected to form illusory stories is also far greater.
Unfortunately, the illusory constellations that fit our personal mythologies have a huge advantage over the truth. Confirmation bias, a quirk of the brain that causes us to fixate on whatever supports our preconceptions while ignoring that which does not, means that, no matter how much information we're given, we'll cherry-pick those parts of it that fit our narratives, isolating them like astrologers isolated the few stars that fit predetermined outlines from all the stars that didn't.
Today, no matter what you choose to believe, you'll find a wealth of evidence for it, not because what you believe is true, but because your brain evolved to find patterns in a low-information world, and thus with an almost limitless supply of information to cherry-pick from, it can find any pattern you wish.
We’re no longer trying to discern portents in a serene night sky; we’re now searching for patterns in a thick blizzard of data, dense enough to display any constellation we expect to see, in any level of detail. The result is that the digital domain has become a great mirror in which people see their own beliefs reflected back at them in far greater resolution than the crude stick figures seen by our ancestors in the stars. Rather than show us reality, the web has made us hallucinate in HD.
As if all this wasn't bad enough, the web is calibrated to feed our hallucinations. A key difference between the stars that guided the ancients and the luminous screens that guide us is that the sky was not created to be interpreted—it existed long before us—whereas the web was created specifically for humans by humans.
Humans want your attention, to sell their products, spread their ideas, and share their sentiments. Unfortunately, there are few better ways to get someone's attention than to show them what they want to see. So it should come as no surprise that the internet is full of systems that do precisely that: media outlets offer you news that fits your political views, online ads are tailored to your interests, search engines serve you whatever you demand, recommendation algorithms offer you more of what you've already seen, and social media connects you with those who misinterpret the world the same way you do. What this means is that not only are we making false connections between the countless dots of data, but often the dots themselves are false, their positions shifting to align with our interests or others'.
In the end, all this information we’ve surrounded ourselves with has not made us more rational than our ancestors; it’s made us more susceptible to illusions. The brain evolved for a low-information world, and is overloaded in a high-information one. Like someone with dark-adapted eyes suddenly switching on the lights, we've become dazzled by overillumination. And the online world has pivoted to exploit it.
Many of the ancient constellations tell of the god Zeus disguising himself to seduce mortals. Taurus represents the bull Zeus appeared as to seduce the Phoenician princess Europa. Cygnus depicts the swan form Zeus took to seduce the Spartan queen Leda. And Corona Australis represents the wreath placed by Zeus to commemorate Semele, a priestess killed by Hera after Zeus seduced her in the guise of her ideal man.
The web is much like Zeus; it shows us not the truth, but whatever we want to see. If we wish to break the enchantment, we must stop curating our own constellations in the zodiac of glimmering screens, and recognise our role as co-conspirators in our own deception.