At the bedrock of the liberal democratic ethic sits an assumption so essential to our understanding of the world that we’ve forgotten how revolutionary it once was. Reality is objective, measurable, and accessible to everyone with minimal effort and education. Prior to the Enlightenment, people had little interest in the question of real versus unreal. You’ll find arguments over truth versus untruth, or virtue versus shame, but it was rare to find examples of people wrestling with the question of whether something was “real.” You won’t find the word “reality” in any traditional Biblical translation. Reality is a concept born of the Enlightenment, informed by reason and proof. Modernity is, to a very large extent, the philosophical offspring of the notion of empirical, objective reality.
A new post at Forbes looks at the social media presence of Jenna Abrams, whose Twitter account was on a list of fake Russian intelligence identities turned over to Congressional investigators. She had an extensive following on several platforms. Her posts were widely followed and reviled by different sides. And she doesn’t exist. Viewed in the context of Russian election meddling, she (it) is merely an interesting side-note. Considered in light of the rapid acceleration of computing power, there are ominous undertones in her life story, as it were.
If you consider the development of artificial computing capacity as an evolutionary cycle, independent of our own, then the Abrams scenario points to a troubling new landscape. For hundreds of thousands of years, our most important evolutionary edge was our status as the most the powerful computational engine on Earth. We have already lost that advantage, and we will never regain it. That may having interesting implications in many arenas, but the piece at Forbes focuses on what this means for politics. If cheap, easy to use AI engines can manufacture an apparent reality so convincing that we cannot easily decode it, then one of the foundational concepts beneath our democratic ideal becomes shaky. How do we preserve the power of democratic representation if ordinary people cannot expect to easily ascertain reality? If you need sophisticated experts to sort out a base notion of reality, what happens to democracy?