OPINION: The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Fake News and the Simulacrum of Democracy

Edmund Tayao

Posted at Jan 17 2020 05:46 AM

Nine years from now the world will be taken over by cyborgs controlled by what will then become a self-aware artificial intelligence network called Skynet. Humans will still be able to put up resistance hence the plan of total control by cyborgs could not be completed. The only way is to get rid of the leader of the resistance and the only way to do that is to go back in the year 1984 and kill the mother of the resistance leader. Of course, we’re now in the year 2020 and 9 years from now is expected to be significantly different but the idea of cyborgs taking over as suggested by the movie Terminator remains impossible.

20 years after the first Terminator movie comes another futuristic sci-fi movie "I Robot" came. This time the actual technology is much more advanced other than the projected future of 2035, hence the plot is more sophisticated and the materials used appear to be more realistic. The antagonist is similar to Skynet, this time with a name based on an acronym, VIKI, or Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence. VIKI just like Skynet is supposed to take over the world, but not to replace humans, but to save them from themselves.

These are movies and merely offer stories to entertain us, but as are other stories, even the classics, these are based from reality, even from experience. In fact, stories are often written in reaction to reality; criticizing, reacting and or warning about what’s happening. The Terminator for example is a 1984 movie. It might be a coincidence that the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network or ARPANET adopted the Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol or TCP/IP in 1983 (history.com). This allowed the transmission of data in multiple networks and led to the assembling of the “network of networks” and became what we know now as the Internet.

ARPANET is the first workable prototype of the Internet and came out in the late 1960s and so the idea of some kind of universal communication has always been there. It would take 3 decades more to have the online world, as we know it today that is in 1990. Technology has become a lot more sophisticated. We are now in the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” where we have a combination of new technologies. Apart from artificial intelligence (AI), we now have machine learning, natural language coding, robotics, sensors, cloud computing, nano-technology, 3D printing and the internet of practically everything (theconversation.com).

According to proponents of the fourth industrial revolution, these technologies are set to transform the societies we live and the economies we work in. Apparently, this is likely to be well underway by 2030. To my mind however, it is already here and the transformation has begun. The paradox however is that all these technologies are supposed to have been pursued consciously. How we have been responding to the effects on the other hand seem to show we are doing so unconsciously as we are unprepared.
Reality as we know it before as corresponding to what is real has become significantly different. Reality refers to what really happens or is happening, but today what may be happening is not necessarily real but is nonetheless happening. It is called virtual reality, but just the same it may be considered as really happening as one is able to take part in it. It's a paradox as it is happening but it’s not necessarily real. How we are supposed to respond to what is really real as we used to know is different from how we should respond to what is now called loosely as reality.

The point in all these is that what is virtual is still reality in the sense that it comes with real consequences. It is these real consequences that we have to deal with. How we prevent and address these consequences is significantly different from how we deal with reality before. The information revolution has equalized and or democratized the world in so many ways as it revolutionized not only communication, but in the process empowered so many as to allow lesser powers to respond to superior powers.

We are now able to do anything without actually doing. Power has now been redefined. It is no longer just about possessing the big gun or large army and using the same. One doesn't even have to have any gun in the first place but still create panic and destruction. Year after year you have so many examples in in this regard. In March last year, the Australian Signals Directorate conducted cyber attacks against ISIS targets in the Middle East to disrupt communications with their coalition partners. Even before the killing of Soleimani, the US already launched offensive cyber operations against Iranian computer systems used to control missile and rocket launches in June last year. And there are countless more.

These are examples of conscious, still calculated use of the power of information and communications technology. What is frightening is the use of the same for misinformation and directly affect the outcome of elections. And this is where fake news comes in. To us here in the Philippines, it would appear as simply part of propaganda by competing political groups. It is a lot more than that on the other hand especially if we are talking about changing the structure of international politics.

Timothy Snyder in his book The Road to Unfreedom explains how politics has changed recently that domestic and international politics has come to converge. The word fake news became popular in 2016, especially with the US elections. Donald Trump as an unlikely candidate was accusing left and right of misinformation from those opposed to his being President claiming to have coined the term fake news. But the term has long been used in Russia and Ukraine long before it became popular in the US and the world.

It started as a tool by Russian leaders to control popular sentiment and use it to their advantage. It meant creating a fictional text that posed as a piece of journalism, both to spread confusion about a particular event and to discredit journalism as such. Fake news was spread by ruling Russian politicians then claim that all news are fake and finally that only their spectacles are real. The Russian campaign to fill the international public sphere with fiction began in Ukraine in 2014, and then spread to the United States in 2015, where it helped to elect a president in 2016. The techniques were everywhere the same although they grew more sophisticated over time. The same techniques were used to precipitate Brexit and are being used in the dragging protests in Hong Kong.

As mentioned in the foregoing, these efforts to influence popular sentiment and politics in other countries have become the norm. To cite just a few more examples, in July 2019, Libya arrested two men accused of working with a Russian troll farm to influence the elections in several African countries. At about the same time Microsoft revealed that it detected 800 cyberattacks over the past year targeting think tanks, NGOs, and other political organizations around the world. Majority of these attacks originating from Iran, North Korea and Russia. By August, Huawei technicians helped government officials in two African countries track political rivals and access encrypted communications. There are hundreds more of these operations reported just last year.

The effects of all these are simply staggering. I am concerned, and I am sure everyone is concerned of how our government has been dealing with these incidents as for sure we have been the subject of so many similar initiatives here and in other countries. The more important question to my mind however is the state of our democracy. We are already beset by lack of transparency and accountability and enduring control by the elite of the government. Regardless of the source of misinformation and initiators of political operations in the information highway, it seems that the mandate that could be given or is given to political leaders has become more in doubt.

In a previous writing I argued that the “internationalization of citizenship” is a fundamental concern. The “shrinking” of the world is here but is not as real as if the world actually is now physically smaller. It allows us to think we know more but we actually know less. Still we argue as if we know more than those who really know more. On the other hand, because it is politics, we cannot just allow and accept that others know more than we do. And so compromise that is finding a middle ground has become a lot more difficult. The compromise that has resulted is that of diminishing one or the other. And we are not even sure of the source of our information and therefore the basis of our decision and conviction. So what we have now is a simulacrum of a democracy.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.