Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

I Blame The Babel Fish

One of my favorite writers of all time, Douglas Adams has a neat little plot device in that wholly remarkable book ‘The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy’, called the Babel Fish.

Let me quote the master himself to explain the concept of the Babel Fish to you if you’re not already aware of it:

“The Babel fish is small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy received not from its own carrier, but from those around it. It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. It then excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the conscious thought frequencies with nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain which has supplied them. The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language. The speech patterns you actually hear decode the brainwave matrix which has been fed into your mind by your Babel fish.”

“Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that something so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.”

“The argument goes something like this: ‘I refuse to prove that I exist,’ says God, ‘for proof denies faith, and without faith, I am nothing.’ ‘But, says Man, the Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.’ ‘Oh dear,’ says God, ‘I hadn’t thought of that,’ and vanishes in a puff of logic. ‘Oh, that was easy,’ says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.”

“Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo’s kidneys, but that didn’t stop Oolon Colluphid making a small fortune when he used it as the theme of his best-selling book, Well That About Wraps It Up For God.”

“Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”

So, now that you have the general idea of what the Babel Fish was all about, I want you to keep an eye on that last part of the entry in the guide, especially the ‘more and bloodier wars’ bit combined with the ‘removing barriers to communication’.

I’ve seen a question posed in more than one place and that sort of pattern tends to trigger my curiosity. The question has two components: Why is the world moving towards a more authoritarian kind of rule all of a sudden, and why is this happening now.

Me, I blame the Babel Fish. Let me explain. Since 1995 we’ve been working very hard at removing those barriers to communication. There used to be a degree of moderation and a lower bound to the cost of communication, especially across longer distances and to larger numbers of people. It’s one thing to have a thought in your head, quite another to communicate that thought at the long-distance or international rates of 1990 or so no matter how important you think it is and even worse if you want to tell more than one person. But that has changed - dramatically.

The cost of almost all forms of communication, written, voice, video, worldwide to an unbelievably large audience is now essentially zero. The language barrier is still there but automatic translation is getting better and better and it won’t be forever or we really can communicate with everybody, instantaneously. That kind of power - because it is a power, I don’t doubt that one bit - comes with great responsibility.

If what you say or write is heard only by people already in your environment, who know you and who can apply some contextual filters then the damage that you can do is somewhat limited.

But if you start handing out megaphones that can reach untold millions of people in a heartbeat, and combine that with the unfiltered, raw output and responses of another couple of million of people then something qualitatively changes. The cost drop from $0.50 / minute long distance, a photo copy of your manifesto or airtime on a radio station to $0 is far more than a quantitative change. It means that unfiltered ramblings and polarized messages from people that you’d normally have no contact with have immediate access to your brain, and in a quantity that even the most balanced person would find hard to resist. It’s an incessant barrage of updates from all over the globe (this blog is one such input, and you’re reading it, right?). So suddenly the word of some agitator or angry person carries roughly the same weight as a well researched article in a respected newspaper. Our brains do not have a ‘quality of source’ meta-data setting, they either remember the data or they don’t, and before you know it one grade of bullshit starts to re-inforce another and then your brain is polluted with garbage.

You might feel that you are able to process all this information with care but I highly doubt that is effective in the long run, just as there is no such thing as ‘bad advertising’, as long as a brand is seen or heard about it will take root, even if that root is started from a negative position we are still exposed and to some extent defenseless. Do this for a decade or two and the world will change and I firmly believe that is what we are witnessing, and that Douglas Adams totally nailed it when he wrote that removing barriers to communication could become the cause of conflict.

In the present that conflict takes the form of polarization, of splitting harmonious groups of people into camps, and it doesn’t really matter what causes the split. People that are split tend to be much easier to manipulate, to get them to do stuff against their own interest, get them to support causes that they would not support if they were capable of pausing for long enough to think things through, as used to be the norm.

So, to make it specific, this reduction in cost has made it possible to do a number of things:

  • it allows the manipulation of public opinion on a vast scale

  • it allows this from all over the globe to everywhere else

  • it makes it possible for single individuals to communicate broadcast wise with millions of recipients without any kind of filter

  • it allows the creation of echo chambers so vast that it seems as if the whole world is that chamber and has become representative of the truth

  • it levels the value of what used to be in print, which required the collusion of a large number of people against the word of an individual

  • it allows the people on both sides of an argument to duke it out directly

  • all this happens on a moments notice

If you look at the past, there are other examples of really bad cases of manipulation of public opinion. And those led to predictable and very bad consequences. Today we no longer need large amounts of capital to buy a printing press or a television satellite or radio transmitter, all it takes to wreak havoc worldwide and to put people up against each other is an internet connection.

In closing, I know Douglas Adams wrote fiction, but he also was a very smart cookie. Removing barriers is generally good, and should be welcomed. But we also should be aware that those barriers may have had positive sides and that as a species we are not very well positioned to deal with such immense changes in a very short time. We seem to need some time to react, time to grow some thicker skin lest we’re overly vulnerable and allow ourselves to be goaded into making big mistakes, such as accidentally empowering authoritarian regimes, which tend to be very capable when it comes to using communications systems for propaganda purposes.

Great power comes with great responsibility, the power to communicate with anybody instantaneously at zero cost is such a power.

Edit: HN User tarr11 linked this piece by DNA about the internet (some users report the link does not work but it works for me, strange).

Edit2: And HN User acabal points out that the fact that anonymity is so easy to come by is also an important factor.