Post-Truth Information Systems

Nice guy, good-looking guy, comes in — ‘Donald, we have no trade deficit.’ He’s very proud because everybody else, you know, we’re getting killed.

… So, he’s proud. I said, ‘Wrong, Justin, you do.’ I didn’t even know. … I had no idea. I just said, ‘You’re wrong.’

On 14 March 2018, US President Donald Trump admitted at a fund-raising speech that he had entered a discussion with Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau without knowing whether his claims were true. According to the US Trade Representative (US foreign trade ministry), the US had no trade deficit, rather, a surplus.

This story reveals is that the truth of the matter is actually irrelevant. What really is important is that the US is great again. The US can bully its neighbors and trading partners. People who feel insecure about themselves, may find that simply being on the winner’s team can make them feel much better. This is why Trump supporters rightfully don’t care about whether Donald Trump is telling the truth, or even whether he is pursuing policies that make sense. He is a bully, and he is their bully.

While Trump critics were complaining about his loose handling of the truth, they had missed the primary observation: nobody else cared. We live in a post-truth era.

Information Systems

A piece of paper has transactional value if it can be traded for goods and services, for example, a dollar bill. A fact that has transactional value is one that can be used to acquire advantages or exert influence.

A true claim (a fact) might or might not have transactional value. Knowing that everyone is a better chess player than you is not a fact that you can use to get anything. Knowing that practice can improve your ranking is.

A false claim might or might not have transactional value. The belief that you will go to Valhalla if you die bravely on the battlefield might allow you to fight more bravely, and thereby give your side an operational advantage.

A claim might or might not be true, and it might or might not have transactional value. If you are gaining advantages over your opponents with information with transactional value, then you do not need to care whether it is true.

An information system is something that stores, evaluates, deletes, and transmits information. An information system is orthogonal to reality. For example, a religion is nearly the canonical information system. It performs those five operations, and it does it in a way that alters the behavior of its adherent, to its own benefit. The claims that it makes might or might not have something to do with reality. It is sometimes exactly the very irreal nature of the claims that makes the members want to protect and promote the system.

Once people have identified with an information system – which could equally be a political party or an economic system – once they become subscribers, any new information they receive, which is relevant to their paradigm, they evaluate according to how beneficial it is to the propagation of their paradigm. When Trump supporters encounter derogatory information about Trump in the mainstream media, they can immediately dismiss it as false news. Not because they have looked up any claims, but because the claim comes from an adversarial information system. On the other hand, the information that supports the paradigm needn’t be verified. If someone tells you that your bank is closed on Sunday, and you believe all banks are closed on Sunday, you needn’t demand proof.

The study referred to above, which was some kind of poll study, is disheartening, because it tells us that Facebook and its ilk are not solely responsible for the creation of echo chambers, but that the latter are spontaneously created wherever a belief system is active. It tells us that injecting truth into political discussions will be ineffective. As it has been.

It’s important to remember why we have information systems instead of information. The first answer is that the world is an overwhelmingly complicated place and we need some simplifications to make it mentally manageable. Since simplifications are a kind of error, we need to share errors in order to communicate. In fact, where ever you see public discord it is between representatives of different information systems. They point to each other’s errors, but they are errors that may not be surrendered.

The second reason is more compelling: group membership. You are a member of the group whose beliefs you share. Fascists are not welcome in environmental groups even though fascism is orthogonal to environmental concerns. There are, in fact, fascist environmentalists. The reason that fascists are not part of the broader movement is that fascists do not share the other beliefs that environmentalists share, like anti-racism and LGBTQ+ rights.

Consider this: there is not such thing as the Common Sense Religion or the Common Sense Political Party. Why not? You’d think that nearly every one would want to join. The problem is that everyone thinks s/he already has. Hold on to your seat: group membership must be based on shared falsehoods. The shared beliefs may not be facts and logic. They must be based on something else, any-thing else, some simplification or some irreal beautiful future, or some righteous past. That is why we cannot escape post-truth. We were never in anything else.

We live not in a world of truths, but of information systems. An information system is a paradigm for the creation, promotion, and refutation of claims, based on goodness to the system. A false claim might be worthless, but an information system based on false claims is not necessarily worthless.

Perfect Information Systems

Religions needn’t be verified, because they have the value of being an information system. They create, promote, and refute claims based on the goodness of the claims to its own survival and propagation. For example, it doesn’t matter whether God made the Earth in seven days. The paradigm value of it is that adherents believe that they are living in an environment, designed and manufactured for their well-being. They can look at their difficulties as tests, that some very powerful and loving being has created for them, in order for them to grow as persons.

If you’re a Darwinist, and undergoing difficulties and set-backs, it’s because you’re part of a natural system that is utterly indifferent to your well-being. There is no meaning to your trials and tribulations. That’s obviously more depressing than being in an environment that was designed for your well-being.

If one were to compare two societies, one which had the religious narrative and one which had the Darwinian one, the religious society might actually be more vibrant, merely because people are less likely to be depressed, less likely to commit suicide in frustration and despair, and more likely to try to make a good showing of themselves in order to please their celestial benefactor. That’s why the claims of religious texts needn’t be historical facts. What matters is that the religious texts provide some way for adherents to make sense of the world that might have positive consequences for the religion.

More importantly, anybody who doesn’t accept a religion’s simplistic explanations is a bad person, is an agent of the devil, is somehow a threat to be punished or eliminated. That creates a world in which religious thinking becomes increasingly dominant, because people who reject it become the objects of pogroms and wars, or in a lighter society, become unelectable or dispreferred job candidates. Because of this, religions are, or have the potential to be, perfect information systems.

An illuminating example of the perfection of closed-loop logic is the hostility of American Christians to sex education. They believe that sex is something you’ll find out about on your wedding night, and there’s only one outcome to that, so you needn’t to worry about the details before then. The narrative is that if you do have too much knowledge beforehand, you’ll become wayward. You’ll drift away from the divine plan. The consequence, where this type of thinking is most prevalent, is that teen-age pregnancy rates are very high. On the face of it, it seems contradictory that people who preach sexual abstinence to teenagers should have the most teen-age pregnancies. However, the transactional value is clear: the more mistrust people have of sex education, the more accidents there are, and therefore more children are raised with that mistrust. It is a self-perpetuating phenomenon. Who cares whether sex education is true or correct, when believers are being slowly displaced by disbelievers?

The take-home message is that a paradigm needn’t be based on historical facts, needn’t have historical value, and needn’t even make sense. What it needs to do is to defend itself, promote itself, and replicate itself.

Usually, we think of the truth as self-replicating: People should promote the truth because the truth is useful. However, in the age of micro-aggressions, the truth came off at times as insensitive and politically-incorrect. Information systems bearing transactional value, on the other hand, ruled.

Adversarial Systems

There are two kinds of information system subscriptions that matter. One is a subscription that is beneficial to the subscriber. The second kind is a subscription to paradigms that are hostile to the subscriber’s best interests. A narrative that makes alcoholism seem manageable, might be an example of an adversarial paradigm that the user himself is subscribed to. Another example might be a woman who is loyal to a patriarchy that represses her. Social media might be an example of a system that seemingly provides benefits to the individual user at the expense of undermining the democracy to which the user is also subscribed.

There are also adversarial systems to which the victim has no volitional subscription. For example, a scientist might become aware that creationists are attempting to undermine or cancel her funding. The Cold War was an example of two adversarial information systems that one was simply born into. The financial system, by creating derivative instruments, lying about their dangers, and lobbying for the repeal of legal protections, proved to be adversarial to all but a few thousand humans.


If you are an intelligent, educated person, you have to ask yourself:

  1. Am I subscribed to any information systems that promote my well-being and happiness?
  2. Are there other information systems that are threatening to me?
  3. If so, do I have any subscriptions to contain the threat?

You might be tempted to believe that looking for adversarial systems is exactly what will enable you to discover some, in other words, to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fair enough, but is it the case that right-wing populism has found new strength in Europe because you were looking for it? Or is it because they identified your false news information system as adversarial?

Most educated people do not ask themselves these questions. They rarely see the utility of an information systems arms race. They might find it untoward, and it might be. But is that not itself the result of an information system?

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