A cybernetic argument against post-truth

As far as I see it, the Trump team’s rejection of facts, and the idea that we live in a post-truth world is nothing more than a refusal to engage in conversation with any other entity. It is a lazy and dangerous argument, and a threat to democracy. I will explain why.

In the 1970s Gordon Pask proposed a cybernetic theory of communication. It is called Conversation Theory, and it relates to the way in which we communicate with other individuals. 

It begins from the basic premise that our minds are machines which have the purpose of learning. Each mind forms concepts — that is, understandings of topics — which are in some way malleable. If you could only define the term tree within your own mind once, for example, you would not be able to see any new types of tree as trees. Instead, your definition of tree changes each time you experience, discuss, or think about a tree. The redefinition of concepts, the reaching of new understandings, is an essential part of learning.

One way we reach new understandings is via conversation. A conversation is an interaction between two individuals, in which both state and re-state their understanding of a concept, until they can both agree upon a mutually satisfying definition. A conversation requires the individuals involved to define and redefine their understandings.

Political opinions vary wildly, and largely depend on different definitions of terms like freedom and rights. In a democracy, every individual can form and hold their own definition of such terms. My freedom probably looks different to your freedom. We may not agree on the exact definition of the word, we may disagree wildly on where freedom starts and stops, but we will both agree that there is such a thing as freedom. Indeed, by talking to each other, we will probably learn something about the others’ opinions, we may modify our own ideas, and at the very least we may learn something.

Conversation in politics requires a basic premise: that there are definitions of certain concepts that both parties can agree upon. These are known as facts / truth. A fact may be that WWII was from 1939–45. An opinion might state that it could have ended sooner, had x been done by y. We can all agree on the fact — but we are able to disagree about the opinion.

If we cannot agree on facts, or the fact that there are facts, then our entire conversation will be spent simply restating these premises, rather than discussing potential problems and solutions. It is dangerous to believe that we live in a post-fact world, because it denies the possibility of ever engaging in meaningful conversation. Stating that there is no truth is the same as stating that we will never understand each other. Without meaningful conversation, you have no voice, and there is no democracy.

This is not a new idea. It has been tried and tested in Russia by the Putin regime, whom Trump has repeatedly stated he admires

Reject the idea that we live in a post-truth world. It is toxic, poisonous, and threatens democracy. It is an idea that exists merely to silence all of our voices, and shut us all out of conversation. Whether you are on the left or the right, this affects us all.

Notes and articles


Conversation theory