As They Did Think

John Hubbard
4 min readJan 22
Reality by EranFowler

“The ability and willingness to discern fact from fiction.”
—Reddit user brookish, responding to the question, “what is slowly phasing out in 2022?

There’s a pair of issues, related to my job and profession, that I’ve been thinking about lately. The first is how technological advances successively layer on top of each other, the increasing depth and breadth of which can often cause disconcerting gaps in our knowledge about underlying systems. The second is how blissful ignorance has apparently become easier to attain, thanks in no small part to an explosive growth in new methods for the communication and dissemination of ideas.

There are powerful economic aspects to both of these issues. Early operating systems showed a scrolling boot log on your screen, full of information about drivers and devices, that was therefore useful for troubleshooting start-up problems. The first Macintosh computers instead displayed only an icon of a computer with either a smiling face or a frown, the idea being that if your computer was sad, you needed to take it in for service. Compare to how diagnostic codes on many cars nowadays are only retrievable via a special device available at select repair shops, and the overall decline in user-serviceable parts.

The increasing ubiquity of misinformation can likewise be traced to capitalist enterprises. Platforms constructed to maximize engagement intentionally promote the behavior of those who seek out and surround themselves with comforting lies. In this regard, the heightened availability of fabricated information is more deliberate than inadvertent. Dogmatic filter bubbles have always been around, yet what we’re seeing now is an accelerated shift away from efforts focused on the proper distribution of factual information towards instead the promotion of warped perspectives and even blatant mistruths, all willingly selected for consumption.

This is obviously not the future we were promised. Earlier innovations produced visions of flying cars, shortened work weeks, distributed wealth, and environmental stability. These have given way to a rather depressing dystopia, dominated by modern-day robber barons. It is also clear that the progression of how humans have sought, accumulated, and broadcast information has faltered. And this backslide is not due to any failures in technological advancements—far from it.

I work with technology that isn’t perfect. It can’t be. We have billions of item records, plus thousands of other moving parts, the latter of which cannot always perform exactly as desired. In my mind, such tradeoffs are acceptable, all things considered, and the price we pay for progress. Even so, these flaws piss off a lot of my colleagues, rightfully so at times, especially the ones who were once librarians in simpler times, when less could go wrong.

I can relate. The first library websites I worked on involved me literally writing out HTML, if you can believe it, using Unix terminal commands and a text editor. As long as your static files were sitting on the web server, and it was powered on, you were pretty much good to go. There are so many more potential points of failure with web publishing now. For example, in early 2017, we had a tremendous spike in error reports from patrons using research databases. The reason for this was because the domain of our hosted link resolver was (erroneously, although it took a few days to clear up) blacklisted.

clear light bulb photo by Callum Shaw

Scaffolding can be precarious. When we think with a greater degree of abstraction about the world around us, that makes it easier for us to dismiss the more foundational things we aren’t focused on. One of the biggest related problems with today’s technology is that too many people have faith in an inherently corrupt system. Either they don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care about how software features such as results algorithms really work, and are shaping their conceptions.

I think we have some misplaced nostalgia for clunky technology at least partially because we realize that there’s a lot of bad stuff out there which needs to be dismantled. Sunlight is a great disinfectant. This is why it’s important to include a “knowing how the sausage is made” type of provision in our instruction and industry standards. We also need to have self-correcting systems, and a willingness to stay grounded in reality.

Imagine a world where you could construct for yourself an alternate life, like in The Matrix or Inception, and escape to a happier existence. The self-delusional people who accept alternative facts that conform to their hopes are in a way already doing just this. Thanks to human nature, economic forces, and modern technology, getting them to break those habits is proving to be an uphill battle.

Further Reading

John Hubbard

Librarian at Washington University in St. Louis