Dr Dariusz Chełstowski interviews Professor Jacek Dąbała, author of the book „The Media: Phenomena and Paradoxes”.
„The Media: Phenomena and Paradoxes”, by Professor Jacek Dąbała, author, scriptwriter and media expert, is an unusual, global book that, like a lens, provides us with a focal point where all the most important problems and challenges of our times converge. Problems and challenges faced by a world overloaded with information, and by people who somehow have to „digest it”, as well as by the media which present and transmit it. However, this book is not just about the media, but above all about communicating, and perhaps even more about the way we think. In twelve short essays Professor Dąbała discusses ways of resisting the onslaught of ubiquitous dumbing down, and he does so in a manner that is original and non-trivial, yet straightforward and easy to understand. Much of the book (one of the six chapters) is devoted to topics from the boundary between the media and modern technologies. He comments on the controversies involving brain stimulation by implanted microchips, and the possibility of artificial intelligence escaping human control. He provides us with guidance on finding our way through the ever-growing thicket of data and information that surrounds us all the time and on all sides. This is required reading for those who think. It would also be good if it reached a wider readership, also in translation.
Dariusz Chełstowski: Do people in the twenty-first century need some form of education on the subject of making use of the information that surrounds us continuously and on all sides?
Jacek Dąbała: This may sound surprising, but for me the most important word in your question is the word „some”. One could even formulate an examination question, or an intelligence test, asking: „Why did the media and communications expert found that particular word to be the most important in the journalist’s question?”. The answer would tell us a great deal about our minds and the way we think. However, that is by the way. The word „some” gives us an opening for a discussion about the essence of education in relation to media communcation in a wider sense. Other elements of this question are obvious. The answer is that we most urgently need a new way of educating, one that would automatically test both lecturers and students, teachers and pupils. Using information demands above all the ability to adopt a multi-aspectual perspective and to be self-critical. We can take it as given that for the majority this is an unobtainable goal, but we have to do our best to help the majority develop such abilities as far as that is possible. And since you cannot force people’s minds into operating at a higher level, you have to overcome that limitation by using something accessible, and that involves using emotions. That is the only way: the complementary, psychophysical way. Plugging emotions into education requires extremely skilful and competent educators – individuals who are brilliant, bordering on genius in their fields. Average competence will not do, because information strikes with deadly and ruthless power. It has no feelings, it arrives automatically and on contact with the fragility of life may make the mind its slave or it may kill it. Overcoming the flood of information, one’s own helplessness and exposure to manipulation, of which usually we are not aware, requires many nuanced attributes to be present, including knowledge, sensitivity, inquisitiveness, imagination and, above all, the ability to be self-critical. What we need to develop is a natural inclination to question one’s own „traditional wisdom”, that embarrassingly tragicomical and crude „I know best”, a preparedness to overcome boundaries but above all in oneself. Forcing down barriers in our heads is precisely that necessary „SOME” new form of education, a foundation for educating in that „informaticised” contemporary and future world. It means hope for living and coexisting with the billions of bits of information, for salvation, freedom and wisdom, as well as openness and self-awareness. But the hardest global problem is for the majority to become aware of it and to accept that it is locked, bricked-up in a cell and yet does not know it. It does not know it because everything around us and on the internet creates the impression of our being free. Life within our own virtual reality is possible, even though it may expose humanity to extinction, as for example in our attitude to climate change.
D.CH.: Is it not an exaggeration to claim, as some do, that Google controls the information available on the internet, and thus decides on what content can reach us?
J.D.: Well… yes and no. On the one hand Google is incomparable in opening new opportunities for humankind, providing it with the fuel for self-improvement and for becoming aware of new horizons; on the other hand, it does this through engaging individual interests. One’s interests correspond to one’s intellectual level. And thus mediocrity, that dominant force in the world, creates the so-called democracy of the internet; Google learns what mediocrity is like and what it likes. Using the algorithms of artificial intelligence it serves the mediocrity’s thoroughly examined appetites with their favourite dishes, i.e., appealing content. That is exactly what control is. To put it bluntly and without euphemisms, and with no intention of insulting anyone, a weak mind is given the mental fodder adapted to its level, so that owners of websites can suck out billions of dollars from what has been turned into fodder for the majority. Google may thus be both the saviour and the destroyer of human self-awareness. On the one hand, when that self-awareness is high, it gives people quite incredible opportunities for self-fulfilment and for offering their talent to others; on the other hand, when Google engages with mediocrity, usually unaware of its weakness because it is perfectly satisfied with itself and the way it is, this creates the opportunity for control, for taking away people’s freedom, yet paradoxically providing them with a feeling of contentment, even happiness and self-confidence. To simplify, it is largely to Google that we owe the „arrogance of pseudo-knowledge” of the mob, the flood of rudeness and crudeness. It is also to Google that we owe access to pinnacles of knowledge and revelations by exceptionally brilliant individuals. Of course much less often. Google’s control ends where a developed mind, aware of how the media function, chooses for itself, resisting the content that the algorithms push towards it. When we search the internet for information that contradicts our beliefs, when we enter queries from outside our comfort zone, then artificial intelligence loses and we defend ourselves from indoctrination, i.e., from our own stupidity. However, that form of defence is only for the wiser ones, those who think. It is worth remembering: control means money, power and a good life. It is a ruthless business and we need to remember it so as not to surrender to it at our own choosing.
D.CH.: What might be the future of information on the internet? Would that global filter of objectivity that you write about in your book point us in the right direction?
J.D.: It seems to me that the information on the net will evolve in accordance with the possibilities offered by artificial intelligence, digital technology, algorithms, new technologies, carriers of data, their speed and location. Unfortunately, since information is a product that translates into money, it may subordinate some people to others, and will be sold increasingly as entertainment. Logic whispers that this will be the mainstream, even more intense than today. The more we focus the attention of billions of people on a fact, any fact but served in a fun way, even when it concerns human drama, the more money we shall make. Large numbers of consumers are the key to money; that may be a banal statement but we need to remind ideologues of this fact. Obviously, the providers of information will, as they do today, justify their actions with claims of noble intentions and following the wishes of the „common man”. This is the simplest form of manipulation and dumbing-down: I am with you, I respect your opinion, I am doing this for you, I give you what you like, you are important, I show you your enemies, I am on your side, I take care of you etc. etc. This trend will be intensified by new technologies, probably to start with in the form of microchips implanted like pacemakers, but directly into the head. Perhaps there will be other inventions, such as for instance nano/microrobots in the blood, activated via computer when we want it or – and that might be a real disaster – when we don’t want it, when someone else decides for us. As we can see, finding ourselves in the power of others when we don’t want it may turn out to be very easy. All you need is a nearly invisible computer in your bloodstream. Today this is still science fiction, but we can see the first signs of power held by those that hold the information. And that may be a way to win wars, by invading the heads of nations, armies or corporations. Infecting with such a nanovirus may be imperceptible, it may become an epidemic that at some point becomes irreversible, much worse than medical epidemics. That would no longer be a computer infected with a virus, but a living human being’s brain. And it would not be something you would be aware of. A global objectivity filter would be possible on the condition that it would be managed by someone trustworthy. And that is idealistic and random, and not profitable. Unfortunately, the problem lies in the connection between distribution and business. Such a filter could only appear by accident, in a very optimistic version of the future. Or as a result of social catastrophes on an unimaginable scale, of wars resulting from people being manipulated by false information, revolts caused not by the perspicacity of those being manipulated, but by a shortage of „bread and circuses”. And so in future the battle may be fought over maintaining the multitude in a state of docile satisfaction. Information as entertainment would no longer work if we reached the stage of widespread famine, the system would break down. But as long as information is a source of profit and power it will live on – theoretically forever. Few are concerned about accurate information when you can make billions. Somebody once said, what you need is to make people feel they are informed. In other words, it pays to simulate information in order to, in the words of Witold Gombrowicz, reinforce „innate stupidity”. I know this is depressing but, as I said, an accident might produce such a positive filter. Even if only a niche one. This means that yes, this is the right direction, but very uncertain because unprofitable. Difficult to understand and devoid of emotions.
D.CH.: In one of your essays we read that „presumably no intelligent person has any doubt that the race where the winner takes all will be won by the first state to transmit data with the speed of thought, and perhaps faster”. At the moment it sounds a little like science fiction. Are you 100% behind this statement? What conditions, and not only technical ones, need to arise for it to be possible at all?
J.D.: I think that thinking will win. It does not matter whether the transmitted thought is cynical or noble, there is no axiology here, but there is such a thing as the elemental force of human instincts and the ability to understand, in political terms, the essence of goodness, freedom, and life. Transmitting data directly into heads is one thing, but understanding is another. Once it becomes possible for data to be placed in the head, the battle will be precisely over understanding, over thinking. Because only thinking beings, even if only at a basic level, will be capable of ensuring that life continues. You cannot supply data directly into heads with the speed of light and survive as a species if that speed and perception serve only to entertain, to stimulate the pleasure centres. We have to produce food, eat, reproduce, in order for humanity to survive. Artificial intelligence does not understand this, you can only train it to appear to do so. Sooner or later it will turn us off, because we are superfluous. Artificial intelligence can exist without people, for itself, it can „play” with infinite variants of changes for their own sake. That is its true essence. Humanity would then be forced instinctively to take care of the essentials for maintaining life. Transmitting data with the speed of thought would be possible if the human brain was given stimulators, support for its processing power by biochemical, medical and information technologies on the one hand and, on the other, was given an understanding of life at a level stripped of naivety, an understanding of its own relationship with existence. Until such time that we have a more rational definiton of God, Creator of the universe and life, the Absolute, humankind is condemned to a mind that is weak, that has limits. Sending data with the speed of thought is one thing, but understanding it with the same speed is another. That is much harder. The concept of information, of communication generally, would change only if speed of thought was experienced in communicating with others. I do not exclude the usefulness even of telepathy, which sounds like magic, but I am more inclined to see here an understanding of life as absence of boundaries, of limits, with the caveat that the only boundary is not to cause suffering to others. This is the only logical commandment, one that accords both with belief or disbelief in God, in case believers should object. Once people understand that absence of boundaries is a necessary condition of development they might cope with the technology of thought transference in real time. I know, one would then have to face the challenges of morality and ethics. There would be no other way. Data sent in this way would not be sheathed in indoctrination of any kind, it would be aimed at producing the most logical reaction without any axiological uncertainties. In any case the data itself would be radically different. In that kind of perception, when thought immediately absorbs the meaning and the mind is prepared for it, religions in their current shape would disappear, as would beliefs, customs, traditions and philistinism. Ancestral wisdom, that of your mum, dad, granny or grandpa would disappear, there would only be a direct encounter with your own conscience. I am not saying whether this would be a good or a bad thing, I am only imagining a possible future. The human mind would have to be prepared for that immediacy, that speed, and so the education of the masses, the mediocre, would have to proceed apace. Otherwise humankind would not withstand the new technologies and would go mad or become enslaved. Evil would win and enslave humankind in the future. In a sense, there would be no difference from the kind of slavery we know from history. In any case it is happening to a significant extent already.
D.CH.: Could one really effectively „design” democracy digitally, or, rather, could one influence its shape in some way? What form would such „designing” take? And how could one avoid manipulation?
J.D.: One could produce designs for democracy by, as I said, teaching people to think without limits. With one caveat, as I also said, „do no harm”. Designing it would involve a radically different education system, otherwise democracy morphs into authoritarianism, dictatorship or anarchy. We have plenty of examples of that from varioust countries. Responsibly designed democracy must take account of all the citizens. This is the most important challenge now and in the future. In order to resist manipulation that allows all kinds of authorities to lay claims to democracy and freedom, people would have to achieve a standard of thinking that is unimaginable today: to reject most of their precepts, beliefs, superstitions, principles, traditions, customs or preferences. This is the only way to resist the power of the media. By the most rational thinking and self-questioning possible. If the citizens become aware of their own limitations, their mediocrity, this may become one of the foundations of democracy. This may sound very naive, but it seems to me that in a world of unimaginable threats it is worth pondering such a possibility as well. I know this is not a popular idea, many will be angry at the very suggestion that they might be stupid. But my „stupid” becomes wise when I am aware of it. I know my place. This provides democracy with a greater degree of security, because it is this lack of self-knowledge that makes democracy imperfect and a threat to itself. Perhaps it is time for governments to start making use of brilliant visionaries of science and not just standard advisers or analysts? Perhaps the world of politics ought to accept its limitations and start paying top rate for geniuses to think, create and imagine the „impossible”? Well, as someone who professionally engages in analysing, thinking, explaining and communicating, I feel obliged to say what I think is in the interest of all people, including those close to me. Of course, humbly accepting that I may be wrong in this unusual, „prophetic” dimension of our conversation. However, we are talking here about survival of the human race.
D.CH.: On the other hand, in your essay „The death of new technologies” you make a futuristic prediction that technology’s dominance over humanity will come to an end. People, in comparison with artificial intelligence and its algorithms are, in spite of their obvious limitations, a „phenomenon of communication”, they have personalities. Might it be the case that in a direct conflict with machines that would tip the scales of victory to the human side?
J.D.: As I said, hunger and survival instinct of the species may prove decisive. Thinking, feeling, the irrational sensation of pleasure and the striving for it, will always make people want to use artificial intelligence for themselves. But as soon as they feel they are becoming superfluous, i.e., that computers are taking over, humans will instinctively rebel, get angry, and start plotting on a scale unimaginable for algorithms. The thing that makes humans different from the best algorithms is that humans have no limits. They may be and feel themselves to be stupid in comparison with machines, but they subconsciously know that the best of us, if only they live by the „do no harm” precept, will use this limitlessness of the human mind to tame lifeless technology. Humans are the meaning of life, and living is for humans and not for machines. Digitality is there to serve, not to limit or destroy. The „phenomenon of communicating”, the need, at the highest level, to be just aware of life, of living touch, the world or longing and love, devotion, pure beauty, must win. That is what I believe. Human genius will save us. Goodness will never give up. In my book I purposely make readers confront themselves, their ability to think and draw conclusions, with all that which endows them with the power of rationality or deprives them of it on contact with the media – and not only the media.
Jacek Dabala is a professor, novelist, screenwriter, and former TV and radio journalist. He has published ten novels (mystery, suspense, thriller, fantasy, and humour) as well as one play. His academic specialisms cover media, communication, literature and film. He is Head of Media Workshop and Axiology Department at the Catholic University of Lublin (Poland). He also lectures at the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw. He has produced numerous articles and academic books, including in-depth studies on media dramaturgy for writers, journalists, and film makers: Mystery and Suspense in Creative Writing (Berlin-Zurich: Lit Verlag, 2011) and Creative Paths to Television Journalism (Frankfurt am Main-New York-Oxford: Peter Lang, 2015). After graduating from the internationally known National Film School in Lodz, he wrote the screenplay for one of the best-known Polish films, Young Wolves, 1995 (Mlode wilki). He is a member of the Polish Film Academy, the Association of Polish Writers, the Polish Academy of Sciences, the Polish Association of Medical Communications and the Polish Communication Association.
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