In They Live (1988) aliens have infiltrated society and control the submissive humans with all-pervasive, but invisible, mind controlling propaganda. And in George Orwell’s novel 1984, Winston lives in Airstrip One, the remains of what was Great Britain, ruled by an authoritarian Soviet-style one party state. In these fictional worlds, truth has been perverted, and replaced by a series of state perpetuated lies. The fictional heroes of these, and other stories, are fighting state and ruling class propagated lies.
And today, in the real world, like some dystopian science fiction story, commentators are talking about a post-truth society — whatever you used to believe, poof… it’s gone. It’s been replaced by one convenient non-truth or another, because we’re living in a post-fact society, a world without journalistic fact checkers, where people can say ridiculous things without recrimination.
Before the internet, information used to be a valuable resource: it meant something. Then the internet changed that; suddenly the experts no longer seemed as knowledgeable as we once imagined — now anyone with Google search on their phone could state the exact angle the leaning tower of Pisa leans at. Knowledge had been democratised.
Wittgenstein said The world is the totality of facts, not of things. Things must collide with one another in order to produce recordable events — happenings that can be reported. For Wittgenstein, numbers, and then words, collided to produce facts. But when people record the truth, as they see it, they also record the inconsistencies and limitations of their observations — and, that’s when they’re not deliberately distorting the truth for personal gain. Fiction is a lie — these invented stories never happened — but we willingly believe them because they entertain us, and help us to learn. In the real world, on the other hand, people lie to increase their influence, to become rich and powerful — to keep themselves out of prison.
With online bullying and social media, the spread of ‘fake news’ and the societal decline in the quality of public debate: are we entering a world where non-truth is the new common language? In Philip K Dick’s concept of reality, the truth is constantly being subverted by a simulation of the real world: androids that are indistinguishable from people, bizarre beliefs, virtual reality, behaviour changing technologies, etc. Cults routinely use nonsensical ‘logic’ to emotionally hook their members into believing the ridiculous: once they believe the outlandish nonsense they’re capable of believing anything — completely malleable to thought reform.
Politicians often get blamed for bending the truth, not so much their outright lies — although this is becoming fashionable — as directing our attention away from their failures, towards their ‘successes’. The truth is — ‘I’m not kidding around now. Honestly,’ he said. — the post-fact world has always been here. It’s called fiction, and we’re all storytellers. It’s how our society works: the admen sell us pointless products and services through their seductive ‘backstories’; and then there are the pub stories, the courtroom stories, national identity — personal identity.
Meanwhile, one elite replaces another: current priorities and prescient ‘facts’ are superseded by new ones. Old bullet-point lists are discarded like used snake skin. It’s been going on forever.