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The Remaking of Truth in the Digital Age

20.12.2016

n. 3/2017 - Edited by Chiara Giaccardi and Nathan Jurgenson 

Many thought Brexit would not come to pass, that Donald Trump could not be elected, experts, pollsters, and probability models told us so, down to the decimal point. An entire media apparatus that was increasingly certain came to produce instead confusion. The manufactured character of news becomes dramatically exposed, as well as the entertainment-driven nature of electoral politics that increasingly look like reality shows. The vacuum left behind is threatened to be filled with the rising tide of hate speech, hoaxes, and so-called fake news.

We introduce this project amidst this wave of anti-inclusionary and counter-informative forces. Populist movements around the globe are rallying against journalists, politicians, and other professionals and experts who themselves have failed to speak to and about the lives of these people. We are said to now be in a “post truth” time, one where debate over truth has been replaced by a chaos of facts, where the work of building knowledge feels exhausting and impossible, leading to a normalization of the surreal, the uncritical acceptance of heavily biased information as intuitive and unproblematic.

This issue is about our moment of epistemic chaos, the decline of old knowledge gatekeepers, and the political ramifications of fake, misleading, and propagandistic information. We pay special attention to the role of new, digital, social technologies of knowledge and their relationship with politics. We cannot understand how and what people know without understanding the set of information technologies in which we inhabit.

Those debates around the diminishing of traditional institutions being disrupted away by the rising tide and quickening flow of digitality are instructive, too, as institutions of epistemic authority, grapple with staying useful and relevant today. This issue is a meta-discourse on discourse in a time many have called “post truth.” What is it to do theoretical work in a so-called post-truth world without falling in the equally undesirable opposites of cynical functionalism (truth is merely what works, comforted in what they already know, and preserving the status quo) or a new positivism (paternalistic explainerism, where truth is a matter of numbers, and those in power claim a false objectivity). What might Foucault’s “parrhesia” mean today?

And, ontologically, the disagreement over the basic shape of thing in the world might lead to useless possibilities like a radical constructivism where reality is merely what we do with it or an essentialism where reality can somehow be perfectly grasped using the right methodologies. If reality is hard to grasp, its consequences are hard to miss: people suffer injustice and tourture, strive to survive in impossibly harsh conditions, and find ways of resilience and resistance. Suffering and death has a concreteness that escapes any rhetorical strategy, a reminder of the limits of the defeatism of simply claiming everything is fake or a simulation. Is there room for a critical realism that recognizes that reality always exceeds our capacity to grasp it? One that could suggest respect and care over arrogance and exploitation? 

These crucial questions have precedent. A decade ago, conversations about the internet often centered on how truth and news and information more generally will flow when people have access to consume so much more information. And, only a little later, when so many more people can produce such information. Those debates around the introductions of Wikipedia, Google News, or Facebook Newsfeed are instructive today as we continue to struggle with how to incentivize, create, and sort information in ways that are accurate and just. 

We should draw on the literature describing the history of political performance and propaganda. Global strategies of political misinformation and shaping information ecosystems to manufacture ideology and behavior shape and are shaped by the information technologies of their times, and these are lessons we need to draw from to understand our current moment. Is the epistemic vertigo being felt a feature or a flaw, a momentary readjustment or a new normal?

Describing our current situation should also draw on past thinking about knowledge, politics, and technology. For instance, the debates about positivism, the myth of the neutrality and objectivity of numbers and science are instructive. From “big data” science to “data journalism”, numbers play a large part in our contemporary data flows, from metric-based incentives like clicks, shares, and followers to the ubiquity of polling and probabilistic forecasting of elections. Indeed, the most important global news media entity, Facebook, claims it does not have a political or editorial philosophy because it is merely “technology”, a nod to the history of claiming false neutrality. How do we describe epistemic responsibility and pedagogy within a tech culture of supposed objective disinterest? Is there room to move beyond reducing people to numbers? Is a different “proxemics” based on closeness possible?

What is the role of social science in this discussion, especially with respect to new media technologies? Is there room for dialogue today, when information is consumed as a resource for belonging, for maintaining oppositional echo-chamber blocs, especially acknowledging the point that knowledge and understanding is never purely for its own sake but is always entwined with power? The knowledge-power link is no longer something that needs to be made convincing when more and more information is so overtly weaponized, targeted, in the Info Wars.

And how can social science speak to and about our own epistemic bubbles? What about the epistemic gap between those with and without college educations, those who and who are not part of the knowledge-work economy?

We welcome submissions about all of what we’ve talked about here, as well as the many more threads we did not mention relating to this complex theoretical topic.

 

Deadlines & Guidelines

Please send your abstract to: redazione.cs@unicatt.it by January 31, 2017.

Notifications of acceptance will be emailed shortly after the deadline. Abstracts must be from 300 to 400 words long, and may be presented in English. The proposal shall include 5 keywords, authors, institution, and contacts (e-mail), together with a short curriculum for each author.

Authors will be asked to send the whole article (preferably in English, but Spanish, French and Italian are also welcome) by April 30, 2017.

Contributions will be sent to two independent reviewers in a double-blind procedure prior to publication decision. Articles should be between 4,000-5,000 words (no more than 35,000 characters, spaces and notes included), but shorter articles will also be considered.

Submitted papers should not have been previously published nor currently under consideration for publication elsewhere.

A guide for authors, sample issues, and other relevant information is available on the journal’s website.

For further information or queries regarding this Special Issue, please contact the editors: chiara.giaccardi@unicatt.it; nathanjurgenson@gmail.com.

 

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